The Tyranny Of Numbers


When your goal is changing the world for the better, whether through political action, social innovation, or charitable deeds, how do you define success? Unfortunately, as advocacy has become more professionalized, and almost all of our arts and activities have become more modern and “rationalized”, success has become defined by numbers. Good numbers going up, bad numbers going down. Money raised, funds disbursed. Clients treated, polls taken. These can all be essential tools to measure effectiveness and efficiency, but when numbers are everything, what happens to efforts that are hard to apply numbers to?

My thoughts turned to this lately when considering the state of existing HIV-prevention efforts in the US. In spite of a resurgence in new infections in the past decade, federal outlays for prevention efforts account for barely 4% of HIV-related spending. Non-profit organizations that once had large, highly effective prevention campaigns find themselves now primarily concerned with providing medicines, care, and services.

Why? Well, we can assign dollar figures to the cost of treatments, the savings of frequent testing and early care, and give numbers to the victims treated, and the years of their lives. But there is no easy measure of those who don’t get infected, but otherwise might have been. The faces of treatment show us an immediate result, they give us instant gratification for our efforts. There is no “face” of prevention, just as there is no defined price tag. Efforts, and money, follow the numbers.

All one needs to do is look at the annual report of any advocacy group to see the primacy of fundraising numbers. Big numbers make it easier to raise more in the future, regardless of any actual movement toward a goal – so successful fundraising becomes success itself. When I worked in Washington, D.C., there was one LGBT organization in particular that was both publicly admired for their fundraising prowess (and attendant lavish facilities and salaries), and privately derided for accomplishing almost nothing except fundraising in the past decade.

Grant-giving organizations face a similarly perverse set of incentives. Instead of funneling their money in the most effective direction, they are rewarded and applauded rather for how widely they disburse their funds. In the non-profit world, it’s viewed as “better” to have a hundred $1,000 partnerships than, one highly effective $100,000 program. The result is a patchwork of small organizations that spend precious resources just chasing the funding needed to stay alive, and can never achieve any real size or scope.

We can’t escape numbers, and we can’t abandon their usefulness in giving us objective measurements of progress. But maybe it’s time we start looking beyond them, and the world of professional do-gooders finds a way to value the immeasurable.

About The Author

I have experience in fields varying from investment banking compliance, to founding and starting up a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, to high-end retail, college admissions, and working on Capitol Hill for Anthony Weiner (before the creation of Twitter, I should add). I've had multiple letters published in the New York Times, blogged for the premiere LGBT professional networking site, and helped rebuild and coach my University's debate team to back-to-back Team of the Year awards. I'm a fast learner, with a very wide knowledge base and natural intellectual curiosity. I've traveled 3 continents and twelve countries, and have the breadth of knoweldge that would make me a solid bet on "Jeopardy!" (if only it were ever taping when I've been in LA). I'm currently looking to expand my experience by integrating more of my creative, researching, and writing skills. Coupled with my extensive and broad experience in Investment Banking Compliance, I believe this would make me an excellent asset for any team in marketing, development, or consulting.

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