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Beacon blog: How do we measure connections?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2010 - In my two and a half years at the Beacon, a lot of energy has gone toward the idea of isolating a "measure of impact." In the past few months, it has come to a head and I've ultimately decided that we're after the wrong thing.

The accepted relationship between the public and a nonprofit organizations seems to be that people who "have" give money to the nonprofit so the nonprofit can provide services for those who "have not." So the outcome measure follows: How many people did you serve? The public media service model is a little less about the "haves" and "have nots" on the giving end, but the funding model follows the same levers: ratings and reach.

As the newspaper-dot-bomb set off a wave of nonprofit news organizations - of which the Beacon is a part - the rush has been toward using the old model of philanthropic funding. The commercial media model measures circulation and ad sales, but the work of the nonprofit start-up news organization, in differentiating itself, aims to engage the community, to become a community asset, to be the foundation needed for democracy to thrive.

So while reach and frequency are part of the mix, it should be as a means to an end, right? All those numbers should add up to something. Enter the quest for "impact."

Now that there are organizations with three and four years under their belts, the question that has risen to the top of the heap: How do you measure impact? It doesn't seem satisfactory that higher "numbers" directly correlates to higher impact. So what does?

I don't believe that it's merely the correlation between traditional funding and its necessary evils - by which I mean measures - that causes this quest for measuring impact. The digital age brought forth more measurements that we're able to handle.

Never before have so many metrics been at our fingertips. How many clicks? How much time? How many women/men? How many grandmas from Peoria? Credit card companies have been the keepers of scary data for years, but now that the "series of tubes" called the internet is so prolific, anyone can slap a Google Analytics tag on their website, everyone has access to Quantcast.

So we should be able to measure anything, right? With the right metrics, the right expertise, it can all be broken down into numbers, right? Right?

But impact has remained elusive.

The idea of "community engagement" seems to have emerged as a corollary - or at least close cousin - of impact. But it's another term no one can seem to quantify - at least not in a way that can be digested. It's easy and to the point to say "x amount of people were served." But doesn't it carry more impact to say "a family's life was changed forever because of our program/article/outreach? Not only this family, but generations to come?" That's powerful, but how do you measure it? It doesn't morph well into a hard-hitting sound-byte. But it's why we do what we do.

I've decided that we're asking the wrong questions. As a nonprofit, what we do at our core has to remain at the crux of where we assign resources. If to be eligible for certain funding, we have to put resources toward achieving numbers-based outcomes that distract from our core mission, I would ask us to reconsider that funding. This is why the Beacon's long-term plans reduce philanthropic dependency to less than 50 percent.

Still, in the short term, I think it's time to reframe the conversation.

We're not here to shove journalism down people's throats. We're here to have an exchange of ideas, a relationship, a part in the growth and success of our region. There's a currency to what we offer and there's a currency to what we get from the community - it's a two-way conversation. Those currencies take different forms - content, discussions, events - feedback, participation, consumption. The result of each type of currency has a different effect on our sustainability - our ability to continue the engine at the core of our mission.

Without impact and engagement the engine stops, so I'm no longer interested in measuring either. They are givens.

What I'm after is the ability to articulate ways in which we have a two-way exchange with the St. Louis region. To understand the types of people who participate in each of those exchanges. To understand how those exchanges (and the people participating in them) feed back into our sustainability.

So, it's great to know that 2,000 IP addresses accessed a story this week, but the real value lies in why that matters and specifically why that matters in the context of our mission - did they learn something new? Did they share it with someone? Did it connect the dots for them? Did it inspire them to action? Did it open them up to learn more? Could it be that there is a combined metric of number of people that is supported by the value of the interaction, therefore the value to the region?

I suspect the answer is yes, but I also know we're far from being able to articulate it. I do, however, feel confident that the idea of "measuring impact" not only sells us short, but puts us on the wrong path - the old path of bestowing our wares and not truly engaging in a two-way exchange with the community we serve. If we can't articulate the value in that two-way exchange, then our mission is false, and we're not who we set out to be.