Sunday, May 04, 2008

Considering measurements and measurers

Who are you? How do you know?

Psychologists love questions of identity and all its multiple dimensions - from attitudes to behavior. Geneticists are also ready to weigh in, from different perspectives and with different data. Demographers will chime in - disaggregating you along various dimensions and then adding you into many cohorts. Historians or biographers may even have something to say, cross-referencing what others will say about you with the written record and whatever paper trail you may leave. Religious communities and traditions also may claim part of you, sometimes regardless of whether or not you claim them. You may identify with a single race or with many of them, and this may shift over time or remain steadfast for your lifetime. Gender identity - though aligned and singular for many - is more fluid or inconsistent for others. Answers to the questions "Who are you and how do you know?" may vary depending on when and by whom you are asked.

Why am I talking about this? Today I went to two conferences. First, the Jewish Funders Network, where questions and discussions revolved around funding Jewish identity. Everyone seemed to agree that there are multiple ways to identify as Jewish and multiple ways people come to those identities. The conference was held at Sixth & I, a 100 year-old synagogue that, like so many in big cities, spent decades as an African Methodist Church. It has recently been renovated back into a synagogue. It now thrives in its role as Jewish cultural hub and house of worship for Jews of every denomination. It sits in DC's Chinatown, across the street from an empty lot.

Then I took 2 subways and a cab ride to the National Harbor. This is a brand new, man made city that emerges on the horizon south of DC the way OZ rose over the poppy fields. It includes a conference center that encases a fake mini village with a glass wall several stories tall and a football field (or more in length) overlooking the Potomac. There, the Council on Foundation's Philanthropy Summit - with its 2900+ people from 40 countries, three hip hop groups, two gospel choirs, and one Chinese lion dance - was just getting underway. As I checked in for the conference I watched the Council's staff members apply banner flags to the nametags - you know, the multicolored ribbon thingies that say "foundation board member," "moderator," "presenter," "newcomer" and so on. There were at least 12 different such ribbons and I wondered if anyone was wearing a foot long name tag with all of these identifiers attached. These ribbons - so clearly intended to mark you for the benefit of others - bring up another aspect of identity, that which is assumed, assigned, or placed on you by the outside world, by the setting in which you find yourself, or the context in which someone meets you.

So what for philanthropy? My point is this - even the simplest question - "who are you?" has many possible answers. There are many measures and dimensions, many measurers, and many interpretations of the data. Kevin Phillips, author of Bad Money, has an article in the May issue of Harpers called "Numbers Racket: why the economy is worse than we know." In it he lays out in painful detail the many ways administrators and administrations have fudged economic data and benchmarks over the years. These are benchmarks and data points that most of us think are fairly reliable - little things like unemployment rates and gross domestic product. Turns out that they may not be as standardized or longitudinal or reliable as you might want to think.

As we embark on three days and nights of discussing programs, data, measures, returns, and effectiveness, perhaps it is worth acknowledging the dynamism, uncertainty, and relativity of our endeavors. This is not intended to thwart anyone's gusto for good work. On the contrary, questioning our assumptions, probing the data, considering the sources, and re-calibrating our measures are vital to learning and making progress.

For session-level coverage of the COF conference check out both Tactical Philanthropy and the Chronicle of Philanthropy's blog.

1 comment:

Ron de Weijze said...

"Psychologists love questions of identity and all its multiple dimensions - from attitudes to behavior. Geneticists are also ready to weigh in, from different perspectives and with different data."

I am a psychologist and work on "multi-perspectivism". If you are interested, take a look: