Stop trying to fully measure social impact through a number

Part 1. Impact investing

The Impact Investment Industry has been characterized by its focus on social metrics. In an attempt to understand the social and environmental performance of their business, companies are measuring impacts ranging from access to healthy food, student GED attainment, or services for the deaf.

Industry leaders such as GIIN, Investors Circle, and Acumen Fund have preached about metrics’ potential to create a more efficient social impact. It creates transparency. It enables investors to manage, and remain accountable to impact objectives. From a macro perspective, measurement of social impact allow for aggregation of data into per­form­ance bench­marks and provides mar­ket intel­li­gence that can inform invest­ment decisions. It’s easy to see why so many are eager to put numbers to their work.

But as investors are proudly sporting their calculators and drooling over their spreadsheets, little focus has been placed on the non-quantifiable impact opportunities a social enterprise can make.

Below are three cases where social impact was achieved by means that are not measurable. While impact metrics can and should continue to be the cornerstone of the industry, these cases should force investors to reevaluate and look beyond the numbers to maximize social impact.




Sometimes the best approach towards social impact cannot be measured

The following passage is from Community, Creating a Structure of Belonging by Peter Block. The last two paragraphs summarize the point beautifully.

“The story starts when four leaders were asked to work with a group of urban youth.”    “ Joan and Michael Hoxsey and Geralymn and Tom Sparough were four white overeducated adults when they first met with a dozen streetwise African American youth in what began as an intervention to help out youths, including a full curriculum on what these young men ‘ought’ to learn about relationships.

Shortly into the effort, the Hoxseys and Sparoughs realized that to make any difference in the young men’s lives, the adults had to try to understand who these young people were. So they threw out the curriculum and decided to simply hang out with the youth. They listened two nights a week for eight months. The listening was hard, the language was hard, the stories were heartbreaking.

            At first it seemed the young men were unreachable, and any attempt to help would be futile. Then, at some point the adults listening made a difference. The adults and the young people began to trust one another. As one young man put it, ‘The reason I respect you so much is because you may be the only people who listen. Everyone wanted to tell us to ‘pull up our pants’ and tell us how to live.’ Something valuable was built and in the end the ‘things’ the adults wanted to teach about relationships were taught by simply changing the nature of the conversation.

            One of the challenges facing relational approaches such as this is that they do not measure well. If we were to take a conventional approach to measuring these efforts we would look for computer skill improvement and how many got their GED diplomas. The report would give low marks to the easily measured expected outcomes. We would probably conclude that the youths were not ready to learn. We would not consider the computer and GED efforts a failure in leadership – that would be too strong an indictment of our current thinking.

            The social outcomes of the Hoxsey’ and Sparoughs’ work would most likely not be valued by the assessment at all, nor would their leadership style show up as a positive factor. Conventional measures would miss the essence of the humanity and restraint that led to transformation in the form of a group of young African Americans finding four white people, in positions of leadership whom they could trust.”

Connected the young and experienced to learn from each other.


Measured Social Services and products can do more harm than good

In his pithy article Why Servanthood is Bad, John Mcknight describes why a small deaf community in Martha’s Vineyard thrived (had same rates of graduation and marriage as those who could hear), while the mainland Massachusetts deaf community, flooded with advanced social services, was not nearly as successful. The latter case showed how measured services can do more harm than good.

McKnight explains what led the first community’s to success; “The one place in the United States where deafness was not a disability was a place with no services for deaf people. In that community all the people adapted by signing instead of handing the non-hearing people over to professionals and their services. That community wasn’t just doing what was necessary to help or to serve one group. It was doing what was necessary to incorporate everyone.” This comprehensive solution doesn’t have a clear ROI, or any results tied to any particular organization. The solution couldn’t be led solely by one organization or business; it was led by society at large.

Conversely, on mainland Massachusetts, social services programs based on “deficiencies”, while well intended, played a role in reinforcing the very problems they sought to mitigate. The bigger danger is that vanity metrics on these services may initially appear sexy, easily understood, and marketable: “we extended services to 10k deaf people at a reduced rate.” As impact investors, we need to make sure we don’t easily fall for these vanity metrics.


Social Impact can come from how we approach relationships, rather than what we do.

In the article Aspiring Social Justice Ally Identity Development, Keith Edwards details three primary motivations for social justice work and how miss-motivation can lead to burnout, more inequality, and other unintended consequences.

            He describes the nuance that comes from an ally seeing themselves as “selfless,” a “hero,” “helping others,” or wanting to act upon one’s “privilege.” ... Do you see yourself in this way? If so, I’d suggest reading the article and seeing what unintended social impacts you may be having.

The best opportunities for positive social impact, according to Edwards, comes from relationships where all stakeholders work with each other, as equal partners. Everyone sees how they are personally affected by the issue, and their personal stake in making change.

As impact investors, we need to ask ourselves: What is the nature of my relationship with an entrepreneur? What is their relationship with those they serve? The answer to these questions will shed light on how impact will manifests itself. It is not only what we do, but also how our relationships form that have a social justice impact.


Part 2. Action

These impact approaches are intricate, nuanced and difficult to measure. So, with this knowledge, how should we in the impact-investing field react?

1. Stop trying to fully understand social impact through a number

Recognize that numbers do not tell all. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Numbers cannot and never will be a full means to understand or solve a social issue. These are people, not math problems. The nuance of human systems change, and individual empowerment cannot be captured numerically.

2. Form Co-Teacher/Co-learner relationships with those you strive to impact.

Yes, you have a snooty MBA from a prestigious University.

Yes, you worked at an esteemed investment bank.

And Yes, your ex-coworkers hail you as a business minded MLK.

But unless you spent your childhood living on food stamps, or were affected by gun violence first hand, don’t even dare to think you understand what those affected are going through. Don’t dare to think you know how to solve their problems. Don’t act as if you will be their savior; it belittles their abilities and sets you up as a superior.

Relationships amongst investors, investees, and impact recipients need to be of a symbiotic co-teaching and co-learning nature. Since many social issues are deeply experienced based, and often driven by social identities, all stakeholders need to recognize what they understand and what they do not. They need to delve into intergroup dialogue to understand how best to have impact.


3. Multidisciplinary teams are needed on impact investment funds.

You need business people. You need math people. You need social science people. You need people who have experienced the issues first hand.

To solve a complex social issue requires a complex set of perspectives. Talk to the youth at the neighborhood center. Ask the deaf people if they even need services. And as you accumulate perspectives, expect a complex solution … most likely one that can be both measureable and immeasurable. Which brings me to one last action …


4. Evaluate both the quantifiable and immeasurable aspects of impact.

Both are critical parts to solving social problems. Don't let the flashy numbers overshadow your focus on what cannot be measured.

ABI: Always Be Inviting

Nick Vinchenzo didn’t invite me to his 3rd grade birthday party.

I was sad.

His old invitations excited me. Speckled in glitter, with Daniel Morrse adorably misspelled across the cover, they hinted at a birthday adventure: Pokémon movie this year? Bowling? Sherlock Holmes themed scavenger hunt?

Cards like these would surface from my dad’s dusty pile of bills from AT&T, Health Insurance, and stiff envelopes addressed Mr. Morse. His mail was so … boring.

But Nick’s card was different. It made me feel … special.

Unfortunately, most first-time messages can feel like bills – bulky explanations. Stale pitches. They ask to get, instead of give.

So, let me deliver a harsh truth: if you message people you don’t know, you are spam.

You intrude into the their mental space. You show up at their doorstep unannounced. You have no idea if you’ll even appeal to them. These messages can birth a rich connection, but at a first glance, they’re spam.

Spam is more than a message. It’s the intention behind it. Spam asks to get.

Invites are different. They are a total gift. They create undeniable value for the recipient. They brighten people’s days.

Let me share how invites have transformed my work and personal life.

(Disclaimer: this post will not help you get invited to 3rd grade birthday parties.)

Invites at work:

When I began working at a Computer Science University I was tasked with recruiting teachers and students to our programs.

My communication, at first, was spammy. I sent long emails detailing the program and asked them to forward along the application. My intention for both of us to benefit was trumped by being a cold lead. It was spammy.

Then, I started inviting people to things.

I convened a meeting for the top EdTech Marketers in the Valley. We hosted a ”Diversity in Tech” happy hour for organization leads.

Dead leads finally responded: “Thanks for the invite” “I’d love to come” “Can’t make it but keep me in the loop for future events.”

Invites create value for you. They 1) communicate you as a leader if you host the event, 2) demonstrate that you are well networked and in-the-know in the space 3) communicate hospitality and acknowledge the worth of the invitee.

Invitees benefit too: they 1) can efficiently meet you and others in a short time 2) they have an opt out, so there is only gain and compliment that can come from the invite 3) they are affirmed as a valuable person in the community 4) fun!

It’s tricky though. An invite can easily be seen as spam if you don’t get the language right.

3 invite timeplates I use: happy hour, on a podcast, to a dinner party

Here are some ways to craft a tactful invite:

  • Don’t be a spam bot – best way to do this is to look through your newsletters and try not to sound like that. Keep in mind that newsletters evolve over the years – now sounding playful (which once was unique) has become cliché. I like to say x y z. Use this language and not this type of language
  • Naming reason for convening – “ I wanted to invite everyone to my place to get to know each other …” Convene instead of consume
  • Be clear about who is invited – “each of you have some interest in bettering our community and I thought it would be good for us to get to know one another” | alone vs network effect. Random identity
  • Demonstrate ease of participation -  “All I ask is that you come with an attitude to get to know one another ” plea vs opt in
  • Make the invite as personalized as possible – in person is best!
  • Give them an opt out – use language like “if of interest” “would love if you can make it” “please come” “can you come”
  • Follow up and say no worries if not, just wanted to make sure this got through!

At Make School we have a concept ABI – always be inviting. Before asking someone for something, create an event or opportunity that gives them far more value than you get.


Invites in personal life

I hopped on the online dating apps and didn’t get much action (perhaps they found out about my embarrassing non-invitation to Nick V’s party, Eeek!).

Dates became more responsive once I started inviting them to things I was already doing. “Want to come to a meditation event series I’m leading?” “A concert?” “An art exhibit that just opened?” Another benefit – even if the date didn’t happen, I still had some exciting plans on the calendar.

A one on one first date is intense. There’s a deep give, get, share that is unfocused and can be intimidating to some people. You litterally stare into the eyes of another individuals. Events and groups can disarm the tension and distribute it across multiple people and interactions and take pressure off of looking deeply into each others faces (unless that's your thing!). The music, art can help you ease into getting to know each other, act as a good medium.

The flip side of inviting people to events holds it's own tension. You may feel more responsible for the person having a good time. You may worry about an impression they'll leave on others.

This gets to a core social phenomenon: People are shy to invite people to their events. If the invitee says no it’s a rejection. Rejections suck. The inviter feels the tension of being a host.

But I’ve reframed the way I see invites in my head. They themselves are an inherent form of impact – they acknowledge someones value. They say, we want you, you belong. A simple invite can go a long way.

So if you are lonely. Or feel like people aren’t responding to you. Invite them to something. You don’t have to be the host. You don’t have to put a lot of work into it. All you have to do is ask. And you too can help people get that magical feeling when they get a birthday card in the mail.

I’m sure you’ll find it goes a long way.

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Evergreen Content: how colleges can make curriculum and assignments long lasting

My childhood friend burned her coursework at the end of each school year. 🔥


“Why keep it? I learned everything I needed to know,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as we watched her math notebook crinkled in flames.

She had a point. Most curriculum dies at the end of class. Yet learning is infinite.

As a college instructor, I began asking, “What if curriculum did last forever?” Like an evergreen tree that was never burned. Something that as you grew, the homework and curriculum could grow and stay with you as a tool.

This comes in two forms: Evergreen Resources and Evergreen Impact.

🌲 Students turn back to Evergreen Resources / Curriculum for consultation throughout their career. For example - if you are learning about user interviews, you can return to that curriculum every time you want to brush up your skills. When you become a manager, check out those resources. Universities curate these resources like pedagogical taste-makers. They can updates the curriculum to incorporate emerging practices and resources.

🌲 Student work can also have an Evergreen Impact. College students put literally millions of collective hours into work. This work is forgotten after the term. The impact of work can extend beyond the semester. This is done through (1) impacting an organization or community and (2) being a tool for reflection.

(1) For example, while at University of Michigan I had a writing and graphic design class create a cookbook with a Detroit community gardening organization. The writing class interviewed the gardeners, wrote profiles about each one and got a recipe. The graphic design class illustrated and published the pieces into a cookbook. The gardeners sold the book at the local farmers market and said that the piece brought them a stronger sense of identity, purpose, unity.

At Make School, our advanced seniors take part in an Industry Collaboration Project. Student teams build prototypes for actual organizations. We’ve built for non-profits, fast-growing startups, university professors, government agencies and more.

The benefits also bounced back to the students. Students worked harder on assignment knowing it would be used by real people.

(2) Be a tool for reflection - homework can have students reflect on what they want to be, how they want to act in situations and how they want to learn and grow with a topic. Like revisiting an old journal entry, students can reflect back on their writings to see how much they have grown and changed. They can update their piece year after year to incorporate their evolving views.

Both of these also help to extend classroom learning into lifelong learning.

So that when your school year ends,

You’ll take a good stare at your coursework…


Favor the file cabinet 🗃

Over the bon-fire 🔥

Getting Over My Addiction to People Pleasing

Jenny the chain-smoker. How did she justify her first cigarette?

My fiends were doin' it. Just one. Marlboro box cowboy has sexy abs. Innocent, right. Until 20 years later you’re 42, divorced in Sacramento. Thinking, how the fuck did I get here?

Little things, dubiously innocent, can get us off track and stuck in a bad habit. We call this addiction.

Addictions are easy to start, hard to get out of, and even harder to be aware of.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a 10 point plan out to get you out. Millions face addiction yet only the lucky ones have “aha moments” - realization that they need to change.

I had one of those. Except mine happened at the office thinking “how the fuck did I end up a marketer?"

Like any addiction, I stumbled into a job that seemed a harmless good fit, and got caught in a habit that spiraled out of control. My escalation looked like this:

  • High School: loved education and teaching people
  • High School: did not like business
  • College: needed practical skills
  • College: saw the light that business is in everything
  • College: did business school
  • College: veered towards marketing because I hated other classes
  • College: interviewed for marketing roles
  • Work: did marketing at one company
  • Work: then another
  • Work: then another, got good so was easier to get marketing jobs
  • Work: then another
  • Work: Kicked but and celebrated with coworkers

Then BOOM. Now 3 years later I am completely derailed from what is important to me.

What derailed me? A smile.

Yes, a smile.

At each opportunity, someone greeted me like Willy Wonka swinging from the fence of the chocolate factory. “You did it!” I felt affirmed, welcomed, cared for. People told me I did a good job. I got leads. I grew a user-base. I won a golden ticket. 

Whenever that little voice pried, “maybe I should do something more fullfilling?” - anxiety and ambiguity would flood me like Augustus Gloop in the chocolate pond. I’d grab for support, and when I didn’t find answers, didn’t find an alternative path to marketing, I turned to a smile for comfort.

People pleasing isn’t inherently bad. It becomes dangerous when you rely on it to feel full inside instead of relying on yourself. It’s dangerous when you put others’ interest over your own. It dangerous when hit by hit you start to find so much joy in other’s happiness that you forget what delights you. The joy of others and your own blend until you can’t differentiate the two … and that little voice in your head calling truth gets lost at the bottom of the chocolate pond.

People-pleasing addiction can contaminate your sense of what’s important to you.

It’s danger can also be subtle:

You can justify almost anything when someone is smiling at you.

Sandra Robbins is so positive she could make Oscar the Grouch smile. She’s brilliant: 23, went to Yale, wrote a 300 page novel, started a blog that without promotion got 20k views in its first weeks. She’s since joined a big company in New York… She used to beam about the characters in her book but now she tells me she’s “getting good at excel” with an expression that begs for my smile.

Here’s the thing - Sandra is so positive that she could justify ANYTHING as a good opportunity. She finds positivity in the 7/10 opportunities so she won’t reach for the 9/10s. Or even look. And with other coworkers smiling at Microsoft Excel, and people telling her she’s doing a good job and growing, she could get lost in a spreadsheet forever.

Someone smiling at us can make us feel like we are on the right track and keep us complacent.

You don’t risk for something greater because you make people happy now. 

You can fall back on smiling as a crutch.

You can stop reaching for more.




Have you given up your dreams? Do you now forget them and feel like you are just going through life. Then you don’t know what you want! If you just say I guess I’m ok in this situation, then you aren’t wanting enough.

I'm not calling for an end to people pleasing. I'm calling for people to not sacrifice their own self-interest. I'm asking people to find space and time to truly see past the nicotine-smile-blur and actually identify what they want and how to get it. 

Breaking an addiction to people-pleasing, like rehab, is an uphill battle. It can sour people’s mouthes. You may see yourself more as a Violet Bouregart (“I want mooooore daddy”) than a Charlie Bucket. But working on my addiction has helped me feel like Jenny before she picked up that first cigarette. I don't have the answers, but I do think I have some tips that worked for me:


1. Scrape your dreams off the bottom of the chocolate pond: 

Take some time alone. Go out of town, rent a cabin. You’ll be tempted to search for a smile, resist. Without distraction the loneliness may pain you, allow it. Just “be” for a bit. Journal. Reflect on elated memories. Meditate.  Let whatever arises arise. Sit in it. Notice it. Ask yourself what you desire. Ask the 5 whys. Be patient. Carve into your wants and don’t let the practicality of attaining it get in the way … you can want anything. 

[Rilke quote on value of isolation]

Read this. Focus on the 9th path. Enough said.

In isolation you forget everything and remember yourself.


2. Pursue what you want and build support to make it happen: 

Like the 10 steps in Alcholic’s Anonymous, here are my 10 steps to getting over people pleasing:

  1. Just do it. pssshh, like that’s gonna work.
  2. Put a smiley sticker on your bathroom mirror. Good reminder to put yourself first. 
  3. Beware of environments. Don’t go to the chocolate factory if you want to diet! Self control and will power are limited. Plan ahead so you don’t put yourself in high pressure situations and compromise yourself. 
  4. Say no, politely. This formula works for me “(1) Thanks so much for the offer/ask, and thinking of me. (2) I’m focused on [x priorities] and want to keep those committments so (3) nows not a good time/I can’t. (4) Thanks though.”

    (1) Appreciation - acknowledges their effort
    (2) Focus - explains why you say no
    (3) No
    (4) Appreciation - affirms their kindness
    + [optional] suggest a resource or friend who may be interested
  5. If you question “am I being a bad person” use this framework: 

    Only do quadrants 4 and 6.
  6. Don’t apologize. You have every right to pursue your own wellness and self-interest.
  7. Don’t be scared of fallout or consequences. Taking self+mutual interest approach is an important habit. If people want your time that is in quadrant 3 then you don’t want to be with those people.
  8. Ask yourself - 5 years from now what will I think of today’s people pleasing decision? Thinking of long term goals can help us make wise decisions in the present.
  9. Realize you can’t be everything to everyone. Have you mourned that thought? You can’t please everyone. And you shouldn’t be the one who loses. 
  10. Find a Grandpa Joe - a friend who can walk with you along your journey. Together, you can celebrate when you stick to self+mutual interest. Vent your challenges. Talk through habit-changing tactics. Ironically, this may be the very person you most want to please...

And when you do. Maybe you, me Sandra, Jenny and Grandpa Joe can sit by the lake and enjoy a nice bar of chocolate.

Wants vs Want-to-wants

We all have wants and want-to-wants.

Wants  (Ws) are visceral pulls towards things. It's the inner baby in us that yells "mine" and grabs. It's impulsive, out of our control, and has no moral compass.

Want-to-wants (W2Ws) are the ideal wants of our best self. These are the "eating healthy food", "reading more", "waking early". If we had a choice, all our wants would be replaced with want-to-wants.

Self improvement lies in our ability to manifest our W2Ws. To get there, we'll need introspection, courage, and habit design.

Oh, and we'll have to want to change too.