My friend Randy Hayes, the founder and former Executive Director of the non-profit Rainforest Action Network, told me a story about meeting the writer Carlos Castaneda. Randy asked Carlos, “So. Does what we are doing matter?” Carlos pondered the question, gazing off into the distance. He then looked at Randy, and said, “yes, but not for the reasons you think.”
At Brightworks, we continually ask ourselves the question: does our work really make any difference, and how can we know? In response to this question, we have a long-standing internal dialogue about what metrics can reflect the impact of our work, and the tangible outcomes of our projects. Because a great deal of our work involves what we refer to as built environment sustainability, some metrics are easy to capture: what are the energy, water and waste savings of our projects? And while we would be loath to ever assume or imply that it is our work alone that create these results – we work on teams with gifted architects, engineers, planners, and builders – we do assume that we have some contribution to those outcomes.
Several years ago, we started tracking and reporting those water-energy-waste savings, and translating them into meaningful numbers such as tons of carbon dioxide averted from the atmosphere, or dollars of saving to the owners or occupants of the building we work on. As of the end of 2010, our metrics looked something like this:
For more details about the numbers behind those numbers, see the metrics page on our web site.
THE PEOPLE METRIC
But considering our metrics, for some time, something has been bothering me. Something is missing. It occurred to me that while the energy and water and dollar savings created by our work do matter, perhaps the most important impact we have is not measured in kilowatt-hours or gallons or tons of CO2. Maybe the most important impact we have is in the people we touch – the people we inspire and teach. The people to whom we give tools they didn’t have before, or more importantly even, those whose understanding and expectations about what is possible we shift, just a little, or occasionally, a lot. If we help people understand the possibilities for transformative change – that by changing how we as a society do what we do, we, together, can catalyze disruptive, positive, discontinuous change in the sometimes lethargic movement of our economic and social paradigm. If we can awaken in people hope, or restore it, if we can energize them to try harder, to work harder, to believe in a future where human prosperity no longer is tied to the degradation of the planet, but rather, to its conservation and regeneration, then doesn’t that matter more than all that CO2 and averted dump trucks? You bet it does.
So then, how do we measure this – the people we touch, and the impact we have on them? The answer is obvious: not easily. But even so, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it, think about it, and try to track and report it. Here is my current thinking, and I welcome feedback and input…
Look at all the places, through our work, that Brightworks regularly has an opportunity to influence how people think. Some of those places we have greater leverage – an in-house training at a business, or facilitating a discussion seminar with a group of graduate students, for example. Other places, our influence may be less powerful – members of the project teams with whom we have some, but not a lot, of daily interaction, or people who live in the buildings we work on. And in between: readers of our newsletters and blog, attendees at the conferences we speak at, or perhaps even participants in our public workshops and trainings. Whom do we move more, whom do we inspire less? (Whom do we alienate and have negative influence on – perhaps they get fed up and become climate change skeptics?)
Hard – perhaps impossible – to measure with any meaning. But we can at least track the raw numbers. So here we go – our shiny new “People Metric”:
- People who read our blog in 2010: 3,000
- People who “opened” our email newsletter last year: at least 1,000 (impossible to count multiple opens by the same person in different issues…)
- People who attended our webinars in 2010: 500
- People who attended our workshops in 2010: 600-700
- New projects we started in 2010: 94*
- People who live or work in buildings we worked on: 26,700
* [figure there were on average 15-30 people attending the eco-charrette we facilitate at the beginning of the project, and another dozen or so people we interact with in the course of the project. So that means another couple of thousand people, give or take, touched in our project work in 2010.]
And then, the one last component of our people metric: our team. If we are successful in our internal efforts to be informed, expert practitioners in the art of helping our clients create lasting value through integrating sustainability into their work and lives, then each one of our team members is also at the center of one of those “infinite ripples of change” circles. Impossible, again, to measure the impact of a well-trained, inspired, effective Brightworker. But at least worth noting it as one more metric: 24 current team members, and a small handful that have moved on to other ventures. Some impact in this cadre of dedicated, devoted sustainability change agents, beyond that measured in the line items above. One might hope.
What Does It All Mean?
The answer is: we’re not sure. It means we have the opportunity to touch, teach, co-learn with, learn from, inspire, and change, many people through the course of each year. So when we are tracking metrics of the impacts we have, while the precise meaning of these numbers may be elusive, that fact does not imply that the numbers are meaningless. So we’ll leave it to you to decipher the relevance of these numbers, and that, in itself, is perhaps the value of the exercise. To just say: here’s what we did, we know there is impact in there, we know it’s impossible to measure with precision, but here are the rough numbers, interpret them as you may. And that’s about all there is to it.
For as Carlos Castaneda so succinctly observed: what we do, what you do, is important. But perhaps, not in the ways you think.
And perhaps it is best to simply leave it at that.