Moving to New Zealand

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 11th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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There is a word that I have come to really dislike:  monetize—to “put into circulation as money.”  People love to talk about monetizing and this concept of monetizing everything is showing up in the nonprofit sector as well.

Let’s monetize the work of the board; let’s monetize the marketing value of this program.  And so forth.  Not that I’m not 150% in favor of understanding the value of the work that is done, the ripple effects of what we do, the contributions of those who make our missions happen.  But does knowing the dollar value of any of this make us better at doing our mission?  At having the desired and intended outcome?  At changing lives?

This growing push in the nonprofit sector to monetize everything is yet further evidence that dollar value is the data point of supremacy in these United States.  And it does a huge disservice to the nonprofit sector, continuing to elevate a false indicator of “goodness” and success.  Until now, my argument has been largely rhetorical, and that rarely wins.  Now, thanks to the second Social Progress Index (SPI), the first having been produced in 2013, I have some evidence and a group to back me up.

The Social Progress Index,  compiled by the Social Progress Imperative, is built on the belief that the historic-standard bearer of a country’s success—the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—does not tell the whole story of the “goodness” and true success of a country.  No question about its importance.  And while there may be a correlation between a country’s GDP and quality of life, it by no means tells the whole story of how life is for the citizens of that country.  As the authors of the SPI 2014 say, social progress and economic fortune, together, should be the “twin scorecards of success,” noting that “[e]conomic growth without social progress results in lack of inclusion, discontent, and social unrest.”

The SPI has been designed, over the course of two years, to measure social progress, defined as “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.”  And all of this is separate from economic well-being.

To determine social progress, the SPI looks at 54 indicators in three different categories:  Basic Human Needs, comprised of nutrition, basic medical care, water and sanitation, shelter, and personal safety; Foundations of Wellbeing, consisting of access to basic knowledge, information and communication, health and wellness and ecosystem sustainability; and Opportunity, which includes personal rights, personal freedom and choice, tolerance and inclusion and access to advanced education.  What country is number one on the 2014 SPI?  New Zealand!

And the United States?  Where did it fall?  In the second tier, coming in at #16!  Had it been ranked on GDP, however, it would have ranked #2, right behind Norway, which came in as #5 on the SPI.  [It is worth noting that that five of the members of the G-7 (formerly known as the G-8) were in tier two; only one—Canada—was in the top tier!]  The producers of the SPI point out that while there is a positive correlation with GDP and SPI, economics on their own can’t explain social progress.  And they point out an almost catch 22:  with economic growth there is some social progress low-hanging fruit but then economic growth produces new challenges that are harder and slower to address.   Hence, why a country like the US could be ranked #2 when looking at GDP and only #16 when looking at SPI.

In reading about the SPI, I could not help but think that this was a measure of the contributions of nonprofits.  Clearly, there are some other players involved in some of the indicators, most notably government.  But for the most part, the SPI reflects the work of our sector.  Food, clothing, shelter, education, ecosystems, social justice, health care.  The only thing that they missed in assessing Foundations of Wellbeing is arts and culture, which is both a fundamental of well-being and when fully integrated into a society, a true sign of social progress.  So, yes, the SPI measures the contributions of the third sector, putting it side by side with the economic metric of GDP.

So, does the rank of 16 suggest that our sector is failing our country?  I don’t think so; just that there is work still yet to do.  The SPI calls to our attention that much, but by no means all, of the low hanging fruit has been addressed and is more, or less, under control.  What remains are the greater challenges, the harder wins.  So, we as a sector must continue to push onwards, continue to make progress because we have always known—and now all of society knows—that economics and monetizing only tell part of the story when it comes to quality of life in a community.


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