What Is Success?

The cover of the current issue of Advancing Philanthropy asks the question “What Is Success Anyway, and How Do You Measure It?” As one who enjoys a good debate over philosophy and theory, the first part of the title created instant anticipation. But the moment was fleeting, as the second part of the title suggested the debate would be reduced to metrics.

Indeed, the several articles inside the issue dedicated to defining success speak in terms of metrics. One author states that success for a nonprofit means “having sufficient staffing, resources, experience, and credibility to make a lasting impact in the lives of people and the community.” A second author notes that success can be measured by “Inputs, Outputs, and Outcomes.” Another article discusses building capacity to evaluate programs. Still another discusses “measuring your major gifts program with metrics beyond dollars raised.”

To be sure, metrics matter. They’re important. Bill Gates made a powerful case for metrics in his January 2013 annual letter. Less eloquently but no less effectively, former NFL head coach Bill Parcells, when asked whether his team was better than its losing record would indicate, famously remarked, “You are what your record says you are.”

But there is another way to look at success. It starts with a simple question: Did I give my best effort today? That question can be answered by answering several subordinate questions: Did I get to work early? Did I prepare for my day? Did I accomplish the priorities I set for the day? Was I respectful toward my co-workers? Did I help someone on my team? Did I set a good example for those who report to me? Did I avoid wasting time? Did I make one or more of our donors feel better about their relationship with me and the organization?

If you want to extrapolate this over the course of a year, the questions might sound like this: Did I become a better professional this year? Did I make those around me better? Did I give a solid effort week in and week out? Did I learn from my mistakes? Did I continue earning the respect of my co-workers? Did I always act ethically?

My sense is that people who focus on these questions probably score pretty well when the conversation shifts to metrics. Certainly, in my book, they can claim success.

Rich Brown is President of RB Consulting and an adjunct faculty member at New York University and Columbia University. Comments on this article can be directed to rbrown1787@gmail.com.


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