In a celebrated 2001 essay, wordsmith Tony Proscio asked, “Are grantmakers a species of investor, building benevolent enterprises that produce a measurable return for society, or are they more passive enablers of good, seeking mainly to support those who pursue charitable ends by whatever path?”

He was commenting on the tendency of the charitable sector to import the language of business while remaining largely oblivious to its insights.  But his question still manages to provoke.  The debate over the “measurable return” of charitable enterprises rages on between the pointy-headed wielders of business metrics and the addled bleeding hearts who oppose them.

The Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington attempts to stake a middle ground with a new report titled, Beyond Charity: Recognizing Return on Investment.  The report includes the kinds of cost-saving arguments familiar to many of us: each dollar spent on Johnny’s education saves us ten of thousands of dollars in prison costs and helps turn Johnny into a productive citizen who pays taxes to support local schools and fire fighters.  But the report also attempts to highlight nonprofit contributions that are a little harder to quantify—strengthening community, improving the quality of life, stimulating reform.

I understand the need for arguments like these, but I also worry about their impact on audiences that have a limited understanding of the civilizing effects of the nonprofit sector.

What’s the ROI, for example, on a provocative question that interrupts, if only for a little while, our relentless consumerism and reminds us of what we once aspired to become?  And where do we learn to distinguish between those cases in which metrics apply and those in which social goods are less susceptible to measurement? 

It used to be that notions like “well-roundedness” and “good citizenship” figured prominently in arguments for maintaining the quality of a good public education.  Now it’s mostly about the dreary but important business of building a better workforce.

What do we lose when we attempt to convert every currency to a single coin?  What kind of creature is it that looks for a return on investment first, and for other values only if it must?

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Albert Ruesga is vice president for programs and communications at the Meyer Foundation in Washington, DC.  He blogs on nonprofits and civil society at the White Courtesy Telephone.

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