I don’t expect to end up talking baseball when I head off to the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce’s recent monthly luncheon, an event featuring an appearance by David Grant, the former president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the author of “The Social Profit Handbook.”
I figure I am going to get a dose of how the non-profits ought to take a page from the for-profits by making a business case for their mission, considering the solicitation of a donation as a sales call, and so on. As U.S. 1’s Survival Guide section noted in a preview of Grant’s appearance, “Look at where you hope to see your organization, what kind of reach and impact you want it to have, and then plan out how you can get there.
“But don’t be afraid of running it like a business if you have to. A lot of nonprofits die because they ‘hit a wall and can’t go further without a paid staff,’ Grant says. And they decide to not pay the staff, because, hey, it’s a nonprofit.”
At the Chamber meeting Grant delivers some of that, but he talks even more about assessing and measuring what we do and how much we accomplish — and the unintended consequences of the assessment process. “Foundations don’t understand the turmoil they cause by the separate metrics used by different foundations,” he says at one point. He tells the story of an arts educator in an inner city, whose program was recognized for having a positive impact on its clients. But when one of the sponsoring foundations came to inspect the operation, the educator was criticized for not having hard numbers to prove the program’s efficacy.
Too many programs are run, Grant says, “as if measurement itself is the object.” People are often “afraid to use the word ‘soft’ when it comes to measurement.” Grant says that organizations should instead look for assessment systems that help us achieve our objectives. Grant, who portrays Mark Twain as a sideline interest, quotes Michael Fullan, author of “The Six Secrets of Change,” on one of Twain’s favorite subjects. “Statistics,” Fullan writes, “are a wonderful servant and an appalling master.”
At that point I (no doubt along with others in the room) immediately transfer Grant’s lessons from the nonprofit world to my own business and career. I think about all the style rules that have been imposed on me by stern editors and that I, in turn, have inflicted upon young writers working under me. Have we created a bunch of resentful grammarians when we really need some compelling story tellers?
Grant tells the chamber audience that he often gets that feedback on his book tour. Business leaders tell him “everything you said applies to me.” The CEO of one company heard the guidance about measurement and assessments and told him “I wish I had read this years ago. We would have used it in our tactical planning.”
Sure enough, as soon as Grant’s talk is over a line forms to purchase his book, subtitled “The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations.” I am in it, $20 in hand and ready to buy.
Back at the office with Grant’s “Social Profit Handbook,” I take note of his observations about assessments, and how negatively most people view the assessment process. “We should not underestimate how our experience in school has affected our assumptions about the purpose of assessment,” Grant writes. “As we experienced it, again and again, assessment in its various forms . . . was not about learning. . . It seemed to be more about sorting kids into winners and losers.”
Grant’s book proposes a different assumption about assessment: “The primary purpose of assessment is to improve performance.” Most good coaches of sports teams and teachers of performing arts have already figured this out. As Grant writes, “the assessment of students in sports and performing arts is frequent, individualized, and ungraded. . . It makes explicit the gaps between current performance and the level of performance you are aiming for.”
What Grant says about sports is somewhat true, but even our playing fields are beginning to fall prey to the tyranny of assessment — or “sabermetrics,” a term based on the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research.
That sad state of affairs is highlighted the weekend after Grant’s talk, in an October 4 profile in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of Ned Yost, the manager of the Kansas City Royals. Despite the fact that his team is now in the hunt for the American League championship and that it came within one out of winning the World Series last year (after 30 years of not even making the playoffs) Yost has been depicted as a “holdover from baseball’s Dark Ages,” and called “a bumbling idiot” and a “dunce” by the media.
His failing: Not blindly following the metrics of the sport when making even the smallest of decisions that a manager must make every day of the season. As the Times notes, “more than a few [teams] now operate strictly by the numbers, guided by staff mathematicians who barely watch the games, so as to not be overly influenced by appearances. Analytical commentators and other observers, armed with formulas and metrics, crunch the numbers involved in Yost’s decisions and conclude that many of them are simply wrong.”
But Yost sees it differently. Criticized for allowing players to stay in the game when the statistics would dictate a pinch hitter or a reliever, Yost says he wanted “to put those young players in a position to gain experience, so that when we could compete for a championship, they’d know how. You can’t do that when you’re pinch-hitting for young guys. You can’t do it when you quick-hook starting pitchers. They’ll never learn to work themselves out of trouble.”
Yost has little interest in creating a team of statistical automatons. “Perhaps alone among big-league managers,” the Times reports, “he allows his players to run and bunt on their own. The few games that such ill-considered tactics might cost during a season, he has decided, are more than mitigated by a lack of inhibition that will encourage looser, more productive play.”
Looser, more productive — “soft” measurements that even some in the nonprofit world would scoff at. But Yost’s looser players have made the final four of the baseball world, despite the fact that Kansas City’s team payroll of $125 million ranks 14th among the 30 major league teams in 2015, behind Toronto ($138 million) and the Chicago Cubs ($133 million). Of the four teams left the Mets have the smallest payroll, $120 million (amazing!).
A note about my beloved New York Yankees. I have long admired Joe Girardi, the Northwestern engineering graduate who now manages the Yankees mostly by the statistical book. But after reading the Yost article, I wonder if the Yankees would have been better served this year by Girardi looking away from the stat books and instead into the eyes of C.C. Sabathia, the pitcher. The Yankees pitching corps had eroded in August and September, but a late-season performance by Sabathia, pitching with a knee brace that helped stabilize his gimpy knee, had raised the team’s hopes.
But then Sabathia made an announcement: He was leaving the team on the eve of the playoffs to go into an alcohol rehabilitation program. A few days later in the wild card game the deflated Yankees, number 2 in baseball’s payroll rankings with $219 million, faced Houston, number 25 with $81 million. Those damn payroll statistics notwithstanding, the final metrics created one winner and one loser. Houston, 3, Yankees, 0.