08/06/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

The Emerging Metrics of Doing Good

Global poverty delivers a miserable ROI in the wasted potential of human lives. Talent that goes untapped. And the disease and decay that it produces. Fortunately, the way we fight it doesn't have to.

Despite conventional wisdom, the accurate headline is that investments to fight abject global poverty are showing incredible returns. While that's good news in itself, the subhead indicates that we have a new ally in doing good: independent, empirically tested outcomes for charitable work.

The movement toward outcomes-based research of non-profit ventures has been growing in the past several years. It's a younger discipline, but one that holds promise for charitable givers and altruistic investors.

Even Bono has added a new self-description to his rocker persona. He's now a self-proclaimed "factivist" -- a devotee of data-based hope that abject poverty can be alleviated by 2030. Anyone who has not yet seen his TEDTalk from February of 2013 will be impressed with the data-driven progress he cites in his 14-minute presentation.

But he isn't a soloist in this development song of hope. In 2011 Dr. Scott Todd's book, Fast Living. How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty, detailed that trends are in hope's favor when it comes to releasing people who live on less than $1.25 a day from poverty. What's more, he's been an early voice against low expectations, speaking at conferences and churches about the trends in diminishing child deaths. It used to be that NGOs quoted 40,000 deaths a day for children under five due to preventable causes. By the 1990s, Todd says, the number dropped to 28,000. And recently, UNICEF announced that figure has been slashed again to 19,000 a day. (Levels and Trends in Child Mortality, Report 2012)

This means our motivation for giving to global poverty causes doesn't have to rest solely on a desire to do good or a non-profit's track record for financial accountability. Doing good can be researched and empirically validated. My own organization is beginning to benefit from such outside measurement.

Compassion International is a global child sponsorship organization whose sponsors in the USA and 11 other developed countries invest in holistic child development through churches for 1.4 million children in 26 countries. Dr. Bruce Wydick, professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, approached Compassion in 2008 with a proposal to research adult life outcomes in children who had participated from Compassion's sponsorship program. Even though Compassion had been establishing leading and lagging indicators for key child outcomes, participating in an independent, empirically-driven study would be reinforcing for sponsors and donors as well as for the thousands of Compassion workers over the decades who poured their lives into children trapped in poverty.

In his study, Does International Child Sponsorship Work?, published in the prestigious Journal of Political Economy in April, 2013, Wydick reported "large and statistically significant impacts" for adults who were part of Compassion's sponsorship program as children from 1980-1992. The six country, 10,000 subject research found that adults formerly sponsored through Compassion stayed in school longer. As a result, they were more likely to earn a white collar, salaried position instead of seasonal, menial labor. And they were more likely to be leaders in their communities and churches. (The full study is posted at Journal of Political Economy.)

While the findings are reaffirming for Compassion sponsors, they're life changing for the adults who are now living different futures than their parents. And the data are bursting with hope for children in Compassion's program today. But let's not stop there.

Just as every small business or international organization establishes targets for return on investment or quality control, non-profits don't have to stop with internal measurements or anecdotal reports of success alone. By tapping the impartiality and expertise of development economists, transparency of outcomes can take its place alongside the financial transparency donors have come to expect.

That says much, too, about the way non-profits appeal for funds. We have long appealed to "the best" of people's hearts. People want to do good. They want to make a difference. Now, thanks to the research of development economists, their noble desire to give can be reinforced by notable returns. Motivations can expand from heart alone to heart and mind. In a recent interview with Catholic San Francisco, Dr. Wydick emphasized this newer, more data-rich facet of non-profit fundraising

"We need to move away from feel-good giving to impact giving," Wydick said. "There are many types of development programs people put a lot of money into that have no evidence of impact."

For those of us in the non-profit realm, this means that the desire for daylight needs to shine across our outcomes just as it has shined across financial stewardship. Programs that work deserve the sunrise of additional capital and investment. Those that are ineffective deserve to see the sun set.

Maxims are generally supported truths -- but with time they require updating. In the non-profit world we tout, "Give a man a fish and he will eat today. Teach a man to fish and he will eat tomorrow."

Perhaps it should be updated. "Share a heartfelt story and people will give out of emotion. Show them that it works and they will give to achieve results."

That's the confidence of empirical research. It's the ROI of hope.