What is the Bottom Line for Nonprofit Organizations? A history of Measurement in the British Voluntary Sector

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What is the Bottom Line for Nonprofit Organizations?

A History of Measurement in the British Voluntary Sector
Emily Barman

Department of Sociology

Boston University
October 26, 2006

Over the last two decades, nonprofit organizations in the United Kingdom have faced increased pressure to measure their activities in order to demonstrate their competency, to achieve legitimacy, and to obtain funding. This paper draws from recent literature in the sociology of science to examine quantification in the British nonprofit sector as a historically situated and socially constructed process. Using archival and secondary documents, I find that quantification is not a new pressure for charities in the UK; moreover, while they have employed metrication in the past, what activities nonprofits have measured, and the importance of measurement for their organizational success, has altered over the course of the century.

NOTE: This is a working paper that should not be cited without permission of author.

What is the Bottom Line for Nonprofit Organizations?

A History of Measurement in the British Voluntary Sector
Emily Barman
Over the last two decades, nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere have faced increased pressure to measure their activities in order to demonstrate their competency, to achieve legitimacy, and often to obtain funding (Connor 1993; Murray and Tassie 1995, Jones 1996; National Council for Voluntary Organisations 2003; Paton 2003; Cairns, Harris, Hutchison, and Tricker 2005). Performance measurement has been defined as the reporting of the observable, quantifiable characteristics of charities’ programs and practices (Volkman 1999:27). In the United Kingdom, various methods of performance measurement have appeared, including quality assessment, such as Practical Quality Assurance System for Small Organisations, Excellence Model, Investors in People, ISO 9000, Charter Mark, and Quality Mark; analysis of the social impact of charities, through Social Audit; benchmarking; and outcome measurement (Charities Evaluation Services 2002; National Council for Voluntary Organisations 2003; Paton 2003). All of these modes of metrication are concerned with quantifying charities in relationship to effectiveness: that is, assessing their successful provision of services or goods.

Performance measurement has been the subject of much concern and interest among participants, observers, and academics of the nonprofit sector. Scholarship has focused on its consequences for voluntary and community organizations, their programs, and their clients. The use of performance measurement has been shown to result in the standardization of services, inhibit innovation, produce mission drift, and lead to conflicts over accountability to different constituencies (Kanter and Summers 1987; Ospina, Diaz, and O’Sullivan 2002; Paton 2000). However, we know less about the historical determinants of this move towards performance measurement. The turn to quantification is typically understood as a recent pressure for NPOs. Its growth has been explained by the appeal of the universal criteria of neutrality and objectivity, as the field has become increasingly rationalized, bureaucratized, and made subject to market forces (Murray and Tassie 1995; Paton 2003; Salamon 2003; Cairns, Harris, Hutchison, and Tricker 2005). In his assessment of the rise of performance measurement, for example, Frumkin (2004:52) concludes that “as philanthropy has moved from something individual donors did during their retirement to something carried out by professionals in perpetuity, both effectiveness and accountability have become central concerns.”

However, recent literature in the history of science provides an alternative perspective on the rise of performance measurement for charities. This research has sought to demonstrate that quantification is not a neutral technique employed for reasons of efficiency and rationality. These authors put in question the traditional assumption that metrication captures an already existing and independent reality; measurement does not reflect but constitutes social reality (MacKenzie 1978; Fineman 2004; Miller 2006). In consequence, calculation is viewed as a product of contestations between actors over legitimacy and resources (Porter 1995; Power 1997; DesRosieres 1998; Espeland and Stevens 1998; Mennicken 2002): it is “‘constructed,’ conventional, and arrived at through negotiation” (DesRosieres 2001:340). In all, these scholars work to specify the conditions under which particular modes and systems of calculation are made possible and enacted across different social arenas and historical time periods (Anderson 1988; Carruthers and Espeland 1991; Callon 1998; Miller 2001).

As the use of performance measurement in the voluntary sector becomes naturalized and taken for granted, we risk losing sight of how quantification for charities has been shaped by specific social, political, and professional interests and contexts. Focusing on the case of the United Kingdom, this paper is the first to approach measurement in the nonprofit sector as a historically situated and socially constructed process. To do so, it begins by specifying the challenge of measurement for voluntary organizations. It next places performance measurement within a historical context: analyzing whether and how nonprofit organizations in England have employed metrication over the course of the last century. I find that, in contrast to recent claims, a concern for quantification is not a new pressure for charities in the UK. Moreover, while they have employed metrication in the past, what activities nonprofits have measured, and the importance of measurement for their organizational success, has altered over the course of the century.

Measurement and the Voluntary Sector

Measurement has been defined as “any process by which a value is assigned to the level or state of some quality of an object of study” (Bulmer 2001:455). In the nonprofit sector, measurement occurs when charities make numerical worth of some aspect of their organizational support, structure, or practices. As Paton (2003:1) asks, “how good are we at doing good?” The task of assessing performance in the voluntary sector is complicated by the absence of a single and shared criterion for success (Kanter and Summers 1987). In contrast, organizations in the for-profit sector can be assessed for goodness based on their rate of profit – the financial return received on a business undertaking after all operating expenses have been met. But, voluntary organizations’ do not pursue profit: in result, the goal of effectiveness in the voluntary sector is complicated by the “lack of any suitable overall performance measure analogous to ‘return on capital’ in industry” (Handy 1981: 3). As Peter Drucker (1990:107) concluded in his study of nonprofit organizations’, “what is the bottom line when there is no ‘bottom line’”?

This challenge of measurement is compounded by the extent of external oversight faced by the voluntary sector. In both England and the United States, the central government historically has not held voluntary organizations to any standards beyond compliance with the legal requirement of the non-distribution constraint.1 Further, unlike firms, nonprofits are not responsible to a body of owners or shareholders. Legally, donors and recipients of goods/services have no rights over the actions of NPOs (Frumkin 2002; Kendall and Knapp 1995).

And yet, despite the absence of the standard of profit and nonprofits’ freedom from regulatory and statutory oversight, my claim in this paper is that we can identify definite trends in the types and availability of modes of measurement for charities in the United Kingdom over the 20th century – and charities only, as trusts or foundations are not included in this analysis. Drawing from archival research and secondary documents, specifically examining government reports, the publications of individual charities and trade associations, and academic and advisory texts on the voluntary sector, this essay articulates three distinct but interrelated claims. First, I show how the use of measurement is not limited to the contemporary period: instead, different historical periods in England have been dominated by different standards of measurement. Secondly, I claim that the prevalence of measurement for the English voluntary sector waxes and wanes over time in response to shifting understandings of which social sphere is responsible for the public good. Finally, I show how the rise of various standards of measurement has been shaped by specific social, political, and professional interests and contexts, both internal and external to the sector itself.

Philanthropy and the Assessment of Community Need

The first point here is that measurement in the voluntary sector is not limited to the present day. The current concern for performance measurement is often discussed as a recently emergent dynamic for voluntary organizations’ in England, the U.S., and elsewhere (Paton 2003; Salamon 2003; Cairns, Harris, Hutchison, and Tricker 2005). In contrast, measurement, that is the use of quantification, first appeared in the English voluntary sector in the early 20th century. From about 1900s to the World War I period, an emerging group of social service professionals, committed to a new vision of the task of philanthropy, employed measurement as a means to justify their methods and modes of social change. In so doing, they formed part of a larger and ongoing attempt to systematize the provision of philanthropy that had appeared in the Victorian period, but they replaced an earlier attempt to intervene at the level of the individual with that of the community. Measurement was central to their project.

Prior to this point, the Victorian age had been characterized of the “organization of charity” – the rationalization of the delivery of social assistance (Prochaska 1988). As represented by the Charity Organisation Society (COS) in the mid-19th century, for example, charity would now be provided in the most efficient and effective manner possible. First, the COS attempted to streamline the provision of services, by replacing charities’ individual, arbitrary provision of care with the centralized and coordinated provision of services. Secondly, only worthy individuals and families would be assisted (Humphreys 1995). Morris (1955:30) summarized this view, noting that “man was master of his personal destiny even in a complicated industrial society, and that he should be able by his own efforts to provide for himself and his dependents in sickness, unemployment, and old age if he worked hard and practiced thrift and temperance.” In the eyes of its leaders, previous charitable efforts had been based in sentimentalism: in contrast, the COS would distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor through the use of case work and a central registry of recipients (Charity Organisation Society 1922; Thane 1982; Humphreys 1995; Lewis 1995).

But a new vision of philanthropy, led by a new group of social service professionals, was emerging by 1900. The Edwardian period saw a similar emphasis on the rationalization of philanthropy but at a new level or unit of intervention. As with the Victorian period and the COS, coordinating agencies, such as the Guilds of Help, Councils of Social Service, Rural Community Councils, and the National Council of Social Service, were established to assure the effective and efficient provision of assistance. But, while the emphasis of coordination and centralization remained from the earlier period, the unit of attention in the Edwardian period was different. While the COS had argued that social amelioration occurred at the level of the individual, now the solution was to be found at level of the community (Owen 1966; Prochaska 1988). A new group of professionals sought to replace the fragmented and atomistic provision of assistance to individuals with a new holistic concern for the health of a geographically bounded and interdependent notion of community (National Council of Social Service 1926). The “essential characteristic” of this new vision of social service was its “relation to the idea of community. It was concerned not so much with relieving the destitute individual…as with creating and fostering the spirit of community among a generation which seemed to have lost a great of its traditional social cohesion” (Cole 1945:24).

Social problems were no longer those of individuals but rather those of the community and, accordingly, the task of professionals, voluntary organisations, and coordinating bodies changed as well (Macadam 1934). At the local level, Guilds of Help were formed in many English town and cities, for which civic betterment by the community was the desire (Laybourn 1994:10). Similarly, settlement houses were created in some large cities: according to Standish Meacham (1987:50), the settlement house constituted the “machinery of connection” – an attempt to create community amidst social disintegration through face-to-face interactions. At the national level, the National Council of Social Service was established in 1919, premised on the belief that the “old fashioned-conception of social work as an effort to help other people must give place to a new conception of social service as the common effort to achieve social well-being” – to quote from a 1927 edition of Social Service Review (Morgan 1948:80).

This turn to the community was both shaped by but also reflected in the use of measurement by leaders of this new movement; specifically, the employment of social surveys to quantify and demonstrate the community-wide nature of poverty and other pressing societal challenges (Bulmer, Bales, and Sklar 1991) . Booth’s (1892) and Rowntree’s (1902) influential social surveys of London and York were followed by a multitude of analyses of other cities and towns across the nation (Bosanquet 1912; Freeman 2002). These social surveys sought to present aggregate data on the scope and composition of each locale (Morris 1955); they “located social problems in their historical context and promoted local, community-based solutions” (Freeman 2002:74), As Pat Thane (1982) has shown, aggregate statistics – averages and percentages – were used to represent the status of the community and the causes of those social problems. In his 1892 survey of London, for example, Booth (as quoted in Morris 1955:1978) urged readers that “to judge rightly we need to bear both in mind, never to forget the numbers when thinking of the percentages, nor the percentages when thinking of the numbers. The last is difficult to those whose daily experience or whose imagination brings vividly before them the trials and sorrows of individual lives.”

Measurement, then, appeared in voluntary sector in the early twentieth century as a tactic by which a new set of actors could both frame and justify their new understanding of the causes of social problems and the corresponding modes of intervention and amelioration. Unlike the current day, in which nonprofits numerically assess the success of their efforts, charities in the 1900s and 1910s sought to quantify the target of their intervention. While still concerned with efficiency and effectiveness in organizational form, as had been the case with leaders of the COS movement, these nonprofit professionals employed the quantification of community need to propagate and to legitimate their particular view of how the voluntary sphere should move forward.
Voluntary Action and the Welfare State

Yet, and this is my second point, a historical review of the English voluntary sector in the 20th century does not see a continuation of this concern over the rationalization of assistance, and the corresponding measurement of community need. Instead, beginning in the 1930s and on, we see a marked change in the discourse surrounding the voluntary sector – from efficiency to inefficiency, and from rationality to irrationality. Understandings of the voluntary sector radically altered with the gradual growth of the welfare state from the 1910s and on (Finlayson 1990). Beginning with the Unemployed Workmen Act of 1905, the Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906, and the National Insurance Act of 1911, the role of the central state in providing social services began to expand to include an increasingly larger proportion of services previously provided by the voluntary sector.

The growth of the welfare state influenced understandings of the proper scope and role of NPOs. While there was recognition of the increasing domain of government, this did not mean that the voluntary sector should disappear. Instead, it was seen as taking on a supplemental role to central government, what Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1912) labeled the “extension ladder” view of the voluntary sector (Kramer 1981). Also called the New Philanthropy by Elizabeth Macadam (1934), the state was understood to provide a minimum standard of living for all while the voluntary sector would provide critical but essentially supplementary work.

What then were the scope and responsibilities of the voluntary sphere? To begin, it was implicitly opposed to the state, which was perceived to run along lines of bureaucracy, of rational action, and of efficiency and effectiveness (according to one 1937 government report, as cited in Finlayson 1990). Correspondingly, a popular view emerged of the voluntary sector as the site in society of flexibility, innovation, and meaning (when observers were feeling positive, and as a site of inefficiency, amateurism, and waste, when others were not), thus representing a fundamental shift from earlier attempt to organize the provision of philanthropy in the Victorian and Edwardian periods (Kendall and Knapp 1996; Lewis 1995). Even professionals in the sector professed this perspective, with a 1959 report by social workers concluding that voluntary bodies possess the right to be inconsistent (as quoted in Owen 1966).

In its basis in sentiment, flexibility, and inefficiency, the nonprofit sector would nonetheless provide many useful functions for attaining the public good (Macadam 1934; Simey 1937; Prochaska 1988). First, it was the social space in which pioneer work could occur. According to authors such as Constance Braithwaite in 1938, charities could experiment and innovative more easily than government agencies. “Where flexibility is a special requirement, the contribution of voluntary agencies can be of critical importance. State services must, in general, follow established routines, their rules of procedure cannot take into account the emergencies that crop up nor cover the infinite variations in the human plight” (Owen 1966:534). If these new experiments were deemed successful, they would then be taken up by the state on a larger scale (Mess 1948). “Administration consolidates, universalizes, and standardizes the ventures of faith” (Lindsay 1945:298).

Secondly, the voluntary sphere was to be responsible for the provision of special individualized care, as opposed to the state’s mass provision of care oriented around the median citizen. Clement Atlee (from Briggs and McCarthy 1984, as quoted in Prochaska 1988:84), then president of Toynbee Hall, stated that “we shall always have alongside the great range of public services, the voluntary services which humanize our national life and bring it down from the general to the particular.” Or, as L.F. Ellis (1927:391) concluded in his review of the respective responsibilities of the public and private spheres, “voluntary service is individual in essence, and is seen at its best when it deals with individuals in an individual way.”

Finally, NPOs took on a new function: they would constitute a mechanism of citizenship. Voluntary action by individuals would result in both societal and personal benefits. Collectively, as emphasized in the Beveridge Report of 1948 (Beveridge 1948), it prevented totalitarianism in the age of the welfare state (Kramer 1981). Individually, participation in voluntary associations allowed citizens the opportunity for membership and participation in community, otherwise minimized or denied in a welfare state. Writing at the time, Mary Morris (1955:207) put forward that the nonprofit sector “provided for individual citizens who cannot fully exercise their powers in their day-to-day work and in politics to acquire for themselves that essential ingredient of the good life – personal participation in the affairs of community.”

Thus, in short, as the welfare state expanded, the voluntary sector no longer bore the weight of delivering social services and solving social ills. Instead, it was the space of experimentation, flexibility, and meaning. In result, the use of measurement markedly declined, if not disappeared. With this new vision of the voluntary sector, its members were no longer intent on quantifying need or results and on justifying their employment of particular methods and modes of assistance. This relative absence of metrication stands in contrast to both earlier and later periods in England, when measurement arose as the nonprofit sector held far larger responsibility for addressing social problems.

Charities and Financial Efficiency

The dominant discourse in England about the accepted inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the voluntary sector, and the corresponding lack of attention to measurement, did alter in the late 1960s. In this period, we can see a concern arise over the legitimacy of NPOs which relied on donations. Metrication reappeared and was employed by nonprofits to assuage that worry and to demonstrate competency. However, a new aspect of voluntary organizations was being quantified, in contrast to that of the early twentieth century and its assessment of community need. Increasingly, nonprofits were being judged for goodness based on their financial efficiency – the ratio of fundraising costs to total income.

This turn to the measurement of the financial legitimacy of charities was expressed in a variety of ways. Newspaper stories examined nonprofits from the perspective of fiscal efficiency (Clark 1968; The Times 1966). In the late 1960s, the Community Council (a watchdog organization for consumers) began publishing an annual report that assessed the largest nonprofits in terms of their financial efficiency – how much of a pound’s donation went to overhead as opposed to services (Community Council 1960). Similarly, by the mid 1960s, the Charity Commission, the legal regulator and registrar of charities and trusts in the England and Wales, had received enough complaints about nonprofit organizations that it requested the National Council of Social Service to investigate fundraising methods in the voluntary sector (London Metropolitan Archives 1969; Nightingale 1973). Like the Community Council, the NCSS recommended that donors examine charities’ financial ratios in order to determine if they were legitimate or not. Finally, as the documentary evidence of the NCSS’ working party makes clear, the majority of large charities were employing financial ratios in their fundraising material in order to demonstrate their legitimacy to donors (London Metropolitan Archives 1969). Clearly, by the late 1960s, nonprofits were increasingly being assessed for goodness based on the criteria of financial efficiency.

One important question concerns why the turn to financial efficiency as the standard of measurement for charities occurred in the 1960s. Two developments seem significant here. First, in 1960, the Charity Commission extended its sphere of responsibility in the English and Welsh nonprofit sectors. Previously, the Charity Commission had only regulated trusts. Beginning in 1960, the Charity Commission began to supervise operating nonprofits as well. According to its annual report of 1962, it almost immediately began to receive complaints from donors over suspicions of financial fraud and other forms of illegitimate activity on the part of voluntary associations (Charity Commissioners 1962). So, if givers had possessed apprehension about nonprofits’ use of donations prior to 1960, they had no place for the public expression of their concern until that point. Secondly, there is a possibility that donors became concerned about financial efficiency as charities’ fundraising tactics became increasingly depersonalized and professionalized in the 1960s. Many large nonprofits had begun employing professional fundraisers and consultants by this period, without government oversight of that relationship (The Times 1962; Clarke 1968; Snell 1972).2 Accordingly, the Charity Commission reported that one of donors’ major complaints was that these professional fundraisers received too large a percentage of donations, with too little going to the intended beneficiaries (Charity Commissioners 1962).

But, while financial efficiency appeared as a measure of the legitimacy of collecting charities in the 1960s, no accompanying yardstick or guideline was publicly generated by watchdog organizations, umbrella associations, or the government. While donors were encouraged to scrutinize the financial efficiency of charities, and fund-raising organizations, by all accounts, were publicizing their financial ratios, there was no agreed upon percentage that could be employed by observers to differentiate an efficient charity from an inefficient charity.

This lack of consensus on the part of the Charity Commission, the NCSS, and watchdog organizations such as Community Council to produce a maximum figure for overhead costs resulted from the conjuncture of several factors. For one, the basis for systematic assessment of a charity’s finances was simply not present at the time. By all accounts, there both was disagreement as to how to define terms such as administration and an absence of standard accounting of finances by nonprofit organizations (Nightingale 1973; Yeo 1983). Despite continuing calls for some standardization of reporting activities, it was not until 1988 that uniform standards were proposed for charities’ accounting practices by the accounting profession in the UK (Connolly and Hyndman 2000).

Secondly, the lack of a yardstick for financial efficiency was part of a larger absence of a code of standards or ethics for voluntary organizations in the 1960s. Here, umbrella or trade associations, most notably the NCSS which ideally should have taken on responsibility, refused to put forward a larger code that involved such issues as proper fundraising ethics, accounting measures, and financial ratios. The NCSS felt unwilling to take on this job of regulator without the ability to sanction violating NPOs. It saw this responsibility as properly that of the Charity Commission or another government office (London Metropolitan Archives 1969). But, by asking the NCSS to assume a regulatory role over the voluntary sector, the Charity Commission had passed on the task of overseeing collecting charities except in cases of illegality and fraud. Without the power to sanction, according to reports at the time, the NCSS did not see any merit in investing the time and energy needed to monitor voluntary associations (Nightingale 1973).
Nonprofit Organizations and Performance Measurement

Today, a concern over financial efficiency remains present within the nonprofit sector but an even more important mode of measurement has emerged, centered on the performance of voluntary associations (Paton 2003; Cairns, Harris, Hutchison, and Tricker 2005). In his guide for nonprofit management in the United Kingdom, for example, Hind (1995) concluded that the “concepts of cost and value for money are not at the core of the performance evaluation process…the emphasis of performance evaluation is on assessing whether the specific project in question, or the charity’s activities generally, have been effective. Have the anticipated objectives been achieved?” In Great Britain, nonprofits possess several options if they seek to assess their performance, including Practical Quality Assurance System for Small Organisations, Excellence Model, Investors in People, ISO 9000, Charter Mark, and Quality Mark, Social Audit, and outcome measurement (Charities Evaluation Services 2002; National Council for Voluntary Organizations 2003; Paton 2003).

The timing of this most return turn to quantification in the voluntary sector occurred as the welfare state was being dismantled in the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party, elected to power in 1979, was committed to cutting the central government’s provision of public goods. It did so through a variety of tactics – by implementing welfare pluralism through the devolution of programs to local government; by creating a mixed economy of welfare that transferred the provision of some social services from state agencies to private and nonprofit organizations; and by eliminating other social programs altogether (Brenton 1985; Pinker 1992; Milward 1994; Deakin 1995).

Concordantly, increasing concern was expressed about the proper role and functioning of the nonprofit sector. Multiple publications by government offices, trade associations, and observers called for an expanded role of the voluntary sector in the provision of public services (Wolfenden 1978; Gladstone 1979; Handy 1981; Yeo 1983; Knight 1984; Harris and Billis 1985; Mellow 1985; Woodfield 1987). For instance, Francis Gladstone’s 1979 report, entitled “Voluntary Action in a Changing World,” promoted the voluntary sector as a “third way” between the market and state as the optimal mode by which to reach the collective good. Many of these reports demanded greater accountability and openness on the part of charities. They encouraged nonprofits to seek efficiency and effectiveness in their management (Kramer 1981). In its assessment of the proper role of the nonprofit sector in England, the Wolfenden Committee (1978:192) concluded:

We are certainly not suggesting that all voluntary organisations are inefficient or that they are not cost-effective. But there still clings to them, in the minds of many, an aura of amateurishness, and for their own sakes it would be well that this should be dissolved of their own volition. They owe it to themselves to earn and deserve a reputation for the maximum amount of straightforward efficiency which is compatible with the spontaneity and freedom which are their primary characteristics.
By the 1990s, general worry over the efficacy of the voluntary sector had been replaced by the appearance and spread of a variety of models and standards of performance measurement to assess NPOs. As Nicholas Deakin (1995), Rob Paton (2003), and others (Morrison 1994; National Council for Voluntary Organisations 2003) have shown, the emergence of and necessity for performance measurement resulted from the central government’s use of supervisory and monitoring tactics as the provision of social services was transferred from government agencies to independent organizations. Drawing their models from those employed by the private sector, government funders required recipient organizations to account for and measure their performance by employing quality assessment systems (Power 1997). “Government sought to manage performance without managing organizations” (Paton 2003:31). These models of performance from the private sector were diffused through the voluntary sector through the use of funding restrictions by private and public donors, the growth of professional schools, and trade associations and consultants’ provision of training and assistance (Hedley 1985; Feek 1988; Webb 1990; Harris, Mainelli, and O’Callaghan 2002).

In all, as had occurred at the start of the last century, measurement emerged as a challenge for charities when they held increased, if not a leading, responsibility for meeting the public good. The Nathan Report similarly concluded that the “need for efficiency and effectiveness in the voluntary sector increases in importance as the demands upon it become greater” (National Council for Voluntary Organisations 1990:1). This concern to demonstrate effectiveness stands in sharp contrast to the earlier discourse that characterized the voluntary sphere in the 1930s and on, which had emphasized its irrationality and inefficiency.


I conclude by highlighting the central arguments of the paper. First, I have shown that, in contrast to some current claims that measurement in the English voluntary sector is a new challenge specific to the need to demonstrate success, quantification has been employed by nonprofit organizations at various moments in the past. However, and here is another key point, what activities or processes have been measured by charities has altered over time: while social service professionals in the early 20th century measured community need to justify their new methods of intervention, charities in the 1960s and 1970s reporting their financial efficiency to demonstrate their legitimacy. Given the lack of profit as a standard of assessment in the voluntary sector, a variety of criteria of measurement are possible and have been employed by charities in England over time.

Secondly, the necessity to quantify in the voluntary sphere has waxed and waned over the course of the last century; metrication is not a constant and/or necessary task for charities. At particular moments in the past, nonprofit organizations have been celebrated for their inefficiency, while at other moments, they have been perceived as fully capable of rationality. Measurement, it appears, largely occurs in historical periods where the nonprofit sector holds substantive responsibility for the provision of social services. We can view the extent of nonprofits’ need to quantify as the inverse of the size and scope of the central government. In this, the paper confirms a larger theoretical perspective that sees the scale and presence of the nonprofit sector as derived from the capabilities and activities of government in providing public goods (Weisbrod 1977; Salamon and Anheier 1998).

Finally, I have attempted to show that the use of measurement is never neutral or objective. Instead, measurement emerges in moments of uncertainty and change as social actors – whether charity professionals, donors, or government funders, pursue their own goals and agendas by imposing particular standards of quantification onto voluntary organizations (Abbott 1988; Dejean, Gond, and Leca 2004). The particular content of quantification – what activities, practices, or actors get assessed and in what ways–derives from and reflects larger debates and contestations over the appropriate purpose and nature of the voluntary sector. Measurement, therefore, is intended to establish, through a particular mode of assessment, how charities relate to a specific definition of legitimacy and success. The study of quantification in the nonprofit sector, therefore, provides one window onto larger and ongoing debates concerning the proper goal/s and methods of voluntary associations.


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1 Over the last two decades, however, the central government in England and Wales has extended its oversight of voluntary and community organizations to increasingly more aspects of their structure and activities. Similar steps are being considered in the United States at the state and federal levels of government as well (Wolverton 2005).

2 The Charities Act of 1992 entailed the first regulation by the central government of professional fundraisers’ activities in the English and Welsh voluntary sectors.

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