I’ve recently started a new fitness regimen, and as we all know, once you start intentionally exercising, you start noticing all the other people who are doing the same thing. Only this time, I’m also noticing the growing number of people who are wearing Fitbits.
Just in case you’re not familiar with this device, it’s a sleek, watch-looking wristband that records your activity levels, including steps taken, distances traveled, active minutes and calories burned. It allows you to enter information about the food you eat and log your workouts. You can also get models that track and display the floors you’ve climbed, your track workouts, your heart rate and pulse, and more.
Fitbit is a great dashboard for get information about the things you’re doing to keep yourself healthy – but it’s not a substitute for really understanding your overall health or what to do about it. It doesn’t measure your cholesterol level or check your body for cancer cells. It can’t tell if you’re getting a fever or dose you with an antibiotic. It won’t let you know if you’re suffering from hypertension, pre-diabetes or depression.
In other words, Fitbit can provide some very useful metrics that provide motivation and help you reach goals, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of your health. My fear is that an obsession with Fitbit can actually make us lazy about truly understanding and maintaining our health.
As grantmakers, it’s easy to fall into the “Fitbit fallacy” when it comes to metrics. We currently live in a time when metrics seem to matter more than ever before. We work hard to establish quantitative measures of success for ourselves and our grantees. We present data to our trustees with handy dashboards that demonstrate our progress with numbers and graphs.
These presentations are helpful, because they make our very complex work easier to grasp and – in some ways – show elements of movement toward huge and entrenched challenges. But we also can get caught up in the metrics and miss the bigger picture, neglecting to fully understand and maintain or invest in our work.
For example, if you’re funding a pre-K program and using a standardized assessment to measure kindergarten readiness, that’s fantastic – as long as you are aware that the assessment data is showing a snapshot of each child’s performance in time, but isn’t showing the presence of underlying factors. Does the child have a parent who reinforces learning at home and will continue to do so in kindergarten? Are there non-school social services that have supported this child’s family and will they continue? Will the kindergarten program the child enters continue to provide the support this child needs in school? What else do you need to know or do to ensure that your investments in this program continue to result in long-term success for the kids involved?
I’m not saying that data and dashboards aren’t useful. They can provide an eye-opening perspective that can help you think about your work more deeply. It can be incredibly eye-opening to learn how many steps you take in a day, or how far your grantmaking initiative has moved a particular needle. But don’t let that dashboard mask what’s going on beneath the surface, or beyond the elements you’re measuring. Just as with our health, much of the good we do in philanthropy has a holistic nature to it – and that’s a good that our data and dashboards simply cannot quantify.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a philanthropy expert and author of the forthcoming book, Confident Giving. To learn more about her consulting and advising services for grantmakers, visit her website or read a case study.
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