What Money Can’t Buy

A while ago, I read Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”, and I think it provides good food for thought for those of us in program planning and evaluation. A great deal of effort goes into developing programs that serve a variety of social, educational, cultural, and economic purposes, but when we come to looking at their impacts, we are often engaged in a more limited discussion of their financial or economic value, perhaps because we are so often doing program evaluations to satisfy funders that their investment has been “worth” it.

But, what if we broaden our definition of “value” beyond a market-based definition? What if we consider more than the business case and, instead, keep a more varied bottom line in mind because well-designed programs and services not only make or save money but also contribute non-market value to our society and culture. Besides, not everything needs to or should be monetized, even if it’s technically possible. A case in point: do we really need to explain in monetary terms why it’s important to decrease child apprehensions or improve someone’s access to training opportunities? We have been well-conditioned to justify programs or services in dollar terms and we may not even realize the degree to which we take that measuring stick as a given. But, what if there is a more complete and comprehensive way of looking at the constantly evolving and shifting impacts of work done in the social service or community development sector?

In his book, Professor Sandel treads almost gleefully into the swampy land of social interactions that have been monetized around the globe as he considers the moral/ethical boundaries of the market-driven way of thinking about our economy, environment, and society. On page after page he pushes the reader to provocative places with stories of questionable practices that makes us think about where we want to draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s corrupt and/or unjust. These are not stories of wild extremes either, but rather the stories of the uncomfortable grey zone, that place where tiny incremental shifts have gradually led us down a road that, as a society, we may not have intended to travel.

The application to program planning is that we need to be cautious if we begin to define the core purpose of social purpose programs and services as money-making or money-saving. Or, put another way, we need to be courageous enough to explicitly and intentionally include the resulting social valuein the discussion about what makes something “worth it”. Social innovation, social enterprise, and social impact are clearly not just about money and so there is a lot at stake as the metrics for “success” are being defined. Non-monetary social value can and should be openly and shamelessly discussed alongside financial and economic impact. Just as health economics and environmental economics combine an accounting of monetary and non-monetary value, so the social service sector can more explicitly strive to use rigorous, evidence-based frameworks and indicators that describe more accurately the social impact of the work being done.

Of course, some social purpose organizations need to create (and are very proud to create) additional revenue streams to offset expenses. They may need to make an explicit business case for investments or may have an entrepreneurial mandate. And, all of them should certainly be accountable for responsible resource use and the effectiveness of their programs and services.

However, the value discussion often ends with the monetary argument and a few feel-good testimonials. And yet there are essential non-monetary benefits in the domain of the common good that we not only collectively want to achieve but risk losing if they do not remain visible. Social impact must be kept in the foreground, be planned for, be tracked, and be evaluated in the same way that the financial and economic benefits must be delivered.

How do we do this? First, instead of Logic Models, which suggest a rational (but non-existent) linear progression from input to impact, Theory of Change should be used as the planning tool to look at things from new perspectives. Through that lens, we can “unpack” the theories we have about why our invention will bring about change for the given target population. Only then can inputs or investments be effectively allocated.

Secondly, we need to listen much more closely to the primary beneficiaries so that they can untangle for us the root causes of the social “problem” that the program or service is trying to solve. Primary beneficiaries also need to be the ones who describe witnessed and experienced changes for us. Materiality (i.e. what matters or what is valued) cannot only be in the eyes of the funder or program planner. Too often, program planners ignore the voices of those with lived experience even though social challenges are rooted in complex circumstances that are not easily addressed without being understood. Assumptions can be then brought into the foreground about how the social impact will be achieved.

Finally, some of the change in how we describe the value of programs and services will come from explicit activism in the evaluation phase. First and foremost, we need to resist the urge to select monetizable outcomes and impacts to make a business case before having had a social value conversation with a variety of stakeholders. Number arguments are easier, but incomplete, justifications for running programs in the social service sector. This also means capturing qualitative data about witnessed and experienced social changes that can later be analyzed, aggregated, and clustered to check for significance. It means pursuing the ripple-effect of change into families, communities and systems even if the direct attribution appears to be small at the moment. Even if the funder is not explicitly asking for that information, “impactivist” evaluators can include such results in their reporting as a means of educating stakeholders who are still focused on a money-plus-testimonial picture of a program’s impact. Any real and lasting social impact will be played out in the fuller space of families, interpersonal networks, and communities before they become visible as financial or economic gains in systems.

By recognizing that social value is distinct from and just as important as financial/economic value, programs and services can be much more powerful and transformative. Working with Theory of Change to plan, engaging more fully with primary beneficiaries, and including social impact explicitly in evaluation practices would go a long way towards improving programs and services … and result in increased social value for all of us.

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