I still remember the embarrassed silence that followed when a colleague, over a decade ago, stood up in a room full of foundation leaders at a Council on Foundations conference and asked “What if we all committed to one common goal – to end child poverty in the U.S. in ten years?”  People reacted as if she had made a rude noise.  It was awkward, but beautiful too.  Her question evoked the possibility of collective progress to a vital goal, and at the same time, it indicted everyone in the room, called our commitment and judgment into question.

Our sector is obsessed with the search for measurable impact in specific initiatives, but, as that story illustrates, resists calls to commit to such clear, measurable objectives like eradicating child poverty. 

The American Human Development Index is an important tool, new to the U.S., that could help us resolve that tension. 

The Index measures the three areas that most of us would agree are the basic building blocks of a decent life: health, education and income.  The Index is modeled on the approach taken by the annual U.N. Human Development Report, which has now been instituted in over 160 countries; in fact, the Human Development Report is so well accepted and well known around the world, that some reports on the progress of World Cup soccer teams also highlight their respective Human Development Index rankings, and as Bill Pitkin observes, if the rankings determined the results on the field, the Netherlands and Australia would meet in the finals this June.

The Human Development Index approach was developed by economist Mahbub ul Haq and incorporates the “capabilities approach best articulated by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate economist. (Chapter 2 of Sen’s book “Development as Freedom” should be required reading for all philanthropic and social sector leaders.) I’m not capable of fully describing and advocating the capabilities approach – but in a nutshell, it is akin to what parents want for their children.  If we dig deeper than “I just want them to be happy,” most parents want their children to develop the capacity to choose their paths, so far as they are able.  If we were to survey a wide range of health and human service professionals, chances are they would say they want the same for all the people they serve. (The capabilities approach has many virtues; among others, it employs a strong “informational base” – it is possible to ask people what they want for themselves, their children and their communities and then measure progress in their capacities to achieve it – and unlike other theories of justice, you don’t need to imagine a pre-social contract state of nature or an original position in which people are blind to the advantages they will enjoy by birth.)

In the U.S., the Human Development Index has been championed by the renowned venture capitalist Bill Draper and Ed Cain, the VP of Grant Programs for The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, who were colleagues at the U.N.  Draper and Cain were driving forces behind the first annual American Human Development Report, published by the Social Science Research Council.  (For more on the genesis of the Index and the American Human Development Report, see the forewords to the report by Sen and Draper.)

The American Human Development Index can be a powerful tool for determining the greatest need, targeting resources to those needs and then measuring philanthropic impact, even when that impact is incremental.  By using the Index in conjunction with GIS asset mapping tools, like Healthy City (launching statewide California service on March 3), philanthropic, nonprofit and civic leaders can see where the greatest needs are in health, education, standard of living. The Index also could help leaders track progress index over time to judge whether targeted investments push the dial upward in a community’s overall well-being. “Successful investments in health care should, for example, result in measurable increases in a community’s life expectancy (which the index shows is lowest in Kentucky’s 5th congressional district, for example),” observes As Kristen Lewis, Co-Director of the American Human Development Project “Successful investments in education should result in fewer drop-outs and higher enrollment rates (these are lowest in Arizona’s 4th). Successful investments in the standard of living should result in well-paying jobs (particularly rare in California’s 20th district).”

Another important tool built on the Index is the Common Good Forecaster, which enables users to estimate the benefits a community would reap from increases in education levels, and a compatible tool is the Self-Sufficiency Standard.1

The Index is only sensitive to the variables that it measures; for some philanthropic initiatives, a more detailed index like the Self-Sufficiency Standard, or a custom, tailored index may be preferred (one great, as yet untold story is how The California Endowment used a series of indexes – and help from Healthy City - to select 14 communities in California on which to concentrate under its new strategic plan.) But a composite metric like the American HD Index can enable comparisons across different regions, and even internationally.

The beauty of the independent sector is that everyone can choose which causes to pursue. That can make it difficult to maximize the scale and impact of resources dedicated to a problem, but that freedom is more valuable than the inefficiency it allows.  The promise of ever-improving data leading to smarter philanthropic decisions – pushed by tools like the Human Development Index, the Self-Sufficiency Standard, HealthyCity.org and others – is that a broad range of philanthropic and nonprofit enterprises, acting independently and employing different strategies, will converge toward a shared goal, like eliminating child poverty, as my colleague so rudely demanded over a decade ago.

[1] Full disclosure: United Way is a partner with the American Human Development Report in the Common Good Forecaster, and I work for a United Way affiliate, United Ways of California, which also supported the publication of a report conducted by United Way of the Bay Area assessing the proportion of California residents earning less than the standard [. I’ve been a fan of Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, however, for over a decade (I’ve written about it often, such as here and here), and that may do more to explain how I ended up doing the work I do now than it influences what I write in this post. I also am a proud founding member of Healthy City, a tool I’ve recommended in this space previously .