Meretricious Metrics

I make it my business to read a variety of electronic and paper-based sources of information about doings in and among nonprofit, public benefit organizations. I've come to notice that a favorite term tossed around willy-nilly is, metric, or metrics. Singular or plural, the word fairly bristles with the implication of profound and even quasi-scientific importance. So, I decided to investigate this ostensibly puissant term by looking it up. Here's what I was able to find by consulting a couple of dictionaries.

Metric, adj.,

of or related to the meter or the metric system

Metric, n.,

  1. A standard of measurement

  2. Mathematics, A geometric function that describes the distances between pairs of points in a space.

Adj., of or relating to distance


Metric, n.

Poetic meter


Metric, adj.

  1. of or relating to the metre or metric system

  2. (Mathematics) denoting or relating to a set containing pairs of points for each of which a non-negative real number ρ(x, y) (the distance) can be defined, satisfying specific conditions


Metrics, n.

The use or study of metrical structures in verse; prosody


Metrics, n.

The art of composing metrical verse.

You get the drift. The one definition included that might relate itself to the onslaught of usage in our midst, i.e., "a standard of measurement," seems tenuous and is overwhelmed by the aggregation of much more precise definitions.

What's going on here? I am certainly not certain of the underlying motivations to litter our work with what strikes me as jargon, plain and simple. (There are those who have delved into this phenomenon, and brilliantly so. No one better at it than Tony Proscio, whose book is titled In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations, and available on Amazon.

I come at this subject within our nonprofit ethos in general, grant proposal writing in particular, and remonstrate because I do believe that our choice of language matters. If we really do want to communicate among ourselves, and with others who might be convinced that our public benefit work is worthwhile, then we need to use language that clarifies this rather than obfuscating it. In this regard, I am fond of suggesting that an effective funding proposal answers questions rather than raising them.

Here's an email I sent a while back after having read one of the sources I consult online:

I believe that language matters when it comes to representing nonprofit organizations and their work. I just read your piece on sustainable funding in which the words metric or metrics appear 10 times. I invite you to look at dictionary definitions for either term. The repeated selection of the terms, ostensibly in the name of nonprofit management excellence, amounts to nothing more than gibberish. Although you're not alone in this regard, I suggest that you are diminishing your own organizational credibility apparently in deference to jargon. Why? 

I got a reasonable response in return, acknowledging a point well taken.

By the way, I inhabit no lofty station as a paragon of jargon kill. My previous use of the word, puissant, while not gobbledygook, gives away one of my own manias, that of loving playfulness in language use. My dilemma is being able to distinguish between my own pleasure and the need to do what I so fervently advocate here – not always effectively as others have helped me understand. This, and long years around the grant making-and-seeking arena remind me of the need to be ever vigilant about the words I choose to use, along with now and then visiting the sins of others upon themselves in service to the clarity our sector can put to good use.  

Anya Farquhar