Peak bagging

As someone who likes to be taken seriously, I probably shouldn’t begin this post by publishing such a goofy picture of myself. But here I go, happily sharing this photo, as a way of illustrating a point about goal-setting.

This picture was taken on July 2nd atop Mt. Isolation, an obscure and (true to its name) difficult-to-reach New Hampshire mountain that has an elevation of either 4,002, 4,003, or 4,004 feet, depending on the guidebook. Regardless of its exact altitude, the fact that the summit is 4,000-and-something feet high makes Mt. Isolation one of forty-eight 4,000-foot peaks in the state. And the reason you see me so exultant, relieved, and, well, just a bit inebriated, is that climbing Mt. Isolation meant that I had now climbed all forty-eight mountains, and that moment was the culmination of a personal eight-year quest. I was at long last a member of the 4,000-Footer Club.

Climbing all the 4,000-foot-high mountains in New Hampshire may or may not be a significant accomplishment, but it surely is measurable. I’d been updating my list since 2010, and my progress could be charted in black and white, 1/48 at a time. I’d meet fellow peak-baggers on the trail, and we relied on a familiar shorthand: “How many is that for you?” “What’s left?” “What peak are you saving for last?” I reveled in the camaraderie and the unusual blend of individual challenge and shared mission.

And a clear goal helped to focus the planning process: the strategy and choices could be boiled down to some pretty simple questions. Which trail do we take – the one with the better views or the more gradual climb? Should we try to do two or three peaks in the same day, and, if so, in what order? Should we leave from home in the morning or spend the night before near the trailhead? Should we take on a particularly challenging mountain in June, when the days are longer, or wait until late summer, when the river crossings were likely to be less treacherous? If we encounter snow above tree-line, do we have the right equipment?

In focusing on the list of forty-eight mountains, it was easy to forget the real reasons I undertook this quest. That is, I wanted to get into better shape. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to spend time with friends in the woods and away from technology. And now, eight years and a few hundred miles of trail later, I can say that I’m indeed in better health than when I started (if I don’t think too much about my aching knees), I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment, and I have built up a special closeness with my friend Mark, who was my perpetual companion, and many others who joined me along the way. I can honestly say that I accomplished all my missions, both the one that was easy to measure (bagging all forty-eight peaks) and the ones that really mattered (improving my physical, mental, and social health).

Which brings us to nonprofits and goal-setting. I often facilitate strategic planning processes, and there’s a tendency for organizations to veer toward focusing on easily quantifiable goals. When they do, I think of what sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote in the 1960s: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” In measuring the success and impact of nonprofit organizations – and in setting organizational goals – it’s easy to slip into placing too great an emphasis on what can be easily measured. And if you do that, you may stop paying attention to what really matters.

For example:

  • It’s easy to quantify the number of people served. It’s hard to measure how respectfully and effectively they are treated.
  • It’s easy to measure the size of an organization’s endowment and the investment return. It’s hard to measure how much endowment dollars actually help meet the organizational mission.
  • It’s easy to know if you’ve balanced your budget. It’s hard to measure how much impact you’ve had.

I often hear people say that a nonprofit needs to be evaluated like a business. I disagree. Yes, a nonprofit needs to be businesslike in its processes, and, like a successful for-profit business, it needs to be smart and adaptive and good at marketing, staff development, and customer service. But the ultimate goals of for-profit and nonprofit entities are fundamentally different. For-profit businesses exist, by definition, to make a profit, and those that are large publicly-traded corporations obsess about hitting their quarterly profit goals, maximizing their market share, and increasing stock prices. Nonprofits, by contrast, exist to fulfill their charitable mission. Yes, nonprofits require money to carry out their work, they need to manage those funds well, and, ideally, they have more money in their bank accounts at the end of the year than the beginning. But bringing in money is not an end it itself; it is a means to an end.

So, nonprofits: Work to identify goals that capture your mission, impact, and values. Some may be easily measured. Others may defy simple measurement, but are of immeasurable importance. If you are an agency serving veterans, certainly, you need to record how many people you are serving – an easy measurement. But you also should be sure you’re identifying and articulating the much harder (but vitally important) attributes about how you are serving the veterans. If you are a Boys and Girls Club, certainly you need to track your membership numbers, but you also need to get at the questions of whether you are changing the lives of kids for the better. If you are a museum, you certainly want to track membership and visitor numbers, but you also also should try to assess the level of visitor engagement. It’s often harder to enumerate what really matters most – downright squirrelly, in fact. But it’s important to try – and then, yes, when you reach your goal, to celebrate.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2017. All rights reserved.

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10 thoughts on “Peak bagging”

  1. Congratulations on reaching your goals this summer! And, thank you for this article – I hope a lot of board members and E.D.s are reading this post. For years I have said that we don’t measure the full impact of our services. In some cases I have tried to capture impact in different ways. However here is the issue. Most non-profits cannot afford to have an evaluator on staff or contract with one. I am trained to do program planning and evaluation, however, I also manage a department and participate in Development activities such as grant writing and reporting. Evaluation and planning for evaluation that measures more than participation numbers requires more time than I have in a typical week. I agree, we could be so much more effective if we could have truly skilled evaluators at our disposal.

  2. Congratulations, Alan, on a great accomplishment. (When I first saw the headline, I thought this post might be about the fact that usage of plastic bags was peaking. No luck.)

    One way most any nonprofit can measure what matters is to ask the people it is trying to serve for feedback, as a regular practice. Feedback Labs does great work, helping nonprofits do that.

  3. Alan, a great example of perseverance and keeping your eye on the prize. Thank you for another thoughtful message. I had dinner last evening with our 1976 Boys of the Year, Don Laplante. Don grew up in a large family (4 siblings) supported by a single mom working three jobs. For 12 youthful years Don spent virtually every day at the Boys Club before he entered the Army. “the Club saved my life” is not uncommon to hear when reminiscing with adults across generations who made the Club their second home….in some cases their first home. Sharing these stories with our donors validates that their investment in our kids today will reap benefits far beyond the imagination. You are correct, if one wants to quantify how the Boys & Girls Club changes the lives of children… Don Laplante might be a good place to start.

  4. Mazel Tov, Al. Great picture, great accomplishment. I’m headed to the high peaks region of Maine tomorrow to cycle with 400 others 335 miles in 6 days. BTW, I love the counted, counts quote. I’ve always heard it was attributed to Albert Einstein. Is that incorrect?

    1. Thanks, Linda, and best luck on your ride! As for your question, though that quote is often credited to Einstein, it apparently was indeed William Bruce Cameron’s.

      I’ve learned to check out every quotation attribution, because more times than not they’re wrong. (This is especially true for Winston Churchill, who never said 3/4 of what people think he said. Which is funny: the man wrote so many books and gave so many speeches that there’s already plenty to choose from.) I think there’s a tendency to credit famous people to give the saying extra heft. Anyway, here’s a good link looking at that quote. Be well, and be safe! https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/26/everything-counts-einstein/

  5. Congratulations! Big accomplishment! Great points about measuring impacts. I made similar, less eloquent, points just this week in a client report. Sophisticated donors want to see impact and measurable societal change, not just balanced budgets and reasonable overhead rates. I’d like to see greater societal impacts and smaller endowments. Rock On!

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