The Long Causal Chain

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If you own a television, you’ve probably seen this commercial or others like it recently. It’s a great example of an interesting phenomenon that takes place in nonprofit performance measurement. It’s what I’ve come to call the “Long Causal Chain, Easily Interrupted.” While this is intended to be a humorous post, it does have a serious point.

There have been times in my career when I’ve met with well meaning nonprofit professionals who have a somewhat… loose grasp on the idea of cause and effect. When we’ve discussed what types of outcomes their program can take credit for, they might say something like, “We’re going to build a park, which will encourage young children to play and get more exercise. Since exercise keeps children healthier and healthier children do better in school, I think we should measure neighborhood graduation rates as part of our program.”

I have honestly heard scenarios like this.

As an evaluator, my job is to suggest measures that the program actually can influence. In the case of building a park, I might suggest measuring park usage one Saturday per month or a door to door survey to ask neighbors if they like the park. I would definitely discourage a small program from conducting a 12 year study to see if kindergartners now will go on to graduate high school because of the increased health they have acquired from a playground!

Don’t end up in a roadside ditch. And don’t try to take credit (and responsibility) for things that you cannot possibly control!