Nonprofit Newswire | Billy Beane and Outcomes: What Can Baseball Tell the Nonprofit World About Measures and Measurement?

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August 2010; Source: Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal | Charity Navigator’s Ken Berger is a baseball fan just like we are at Nonprofit Quarterly! Berger and his coauthor, an “outcomes consultant” named Robert Penna, draw on Moneyball’s study of Billy Beane’s management of the small-market, low payroll Oakland Athletics to see if different measures of outcomes—or identification of different outcomes altogether—would help nonprofits improve their operations. Part of the allure of baseball to fans like us (we’re Red Sox fans here) is that it is the most statistic-laden sport in existence, with runs-batted-in (RBIs), earned run average (ERA), on base percentage (OBP), and literally thousands more serving as topics of unending debate, often helped by servings of baseball beers such as Iron City, Schaeffer’s, Stroh’s, and Schlitz. Berger and Penna find lessons for nonprofits drawing on what ““moneyball” and “smallball” concepts taught Major League Baseball, concluding that “the measures the [nonprofit] sector has used in the past—activity counts and compliance, commitment and passion, and even management savvy and financial strength—are inadequate . . . tell(ing) us no more about the contribution an organization or program is actually making to meaningful, sustained social change than batting average tells about a hitter’s actual value to a team’s victories, or a pitcher’s ERA tells us about the quality of the defense arrayed around the bases behind him.” They call for not only adopting meaningful measurable outcomes, but using them to change and improve organizations’ behavior and performance. Their argument is worth reading, though if we recall correctly, Beane’s Athletics never won the pennant despite performing well above expectations given the team’s low payroll. As this is being written, NPQ’s darling Red Sox are watching the New York Yankees with baseball’s highest payroll ($206 million, more than $40 million more than the #2 team, our Red Sox) do battle with the Tampa Bay Rays (nee Devil Rays) with MLB’s 21st highest payroll ($72 million) for the best record in the majors. Like our consistent advocacy for the small nonprofits that comprise the bulk of our sector, we hope that the Rays upend the Yankees—and we’ll celebrate that outcome and the measures that go along with it.–Rick Cohen