Archive for May, 2010

Open Letter to the Impact Investment Community

May 4, 2010

It is very encouraging to discover your web sites (GIIN, IRIS, and GIIRS) and to see the work you’re doing in advancing the concept of impact investing. The defining issue of our time is figuring out how to harness the profit motive for socially responsible and environmentally sustainable prosperity. The economic, social, and environmental disasters of today might all have been prevented or significantly mitigated had social and environmental impacts been taken into account in all investing.

My contribution is to point out that, though the profit motive must be harnessed as the engine driving responsible and sustainable business practices, the force of that power is dissipated and negated by the lack of efficient human, social, and natural capital markets. If we cannot make these markets function more like financial markets, so that money naturally flows to those places where it produces the greatest returns, we will never succeed in the fundamental reorientation of the economy toward responsible sustainability. The goal has to be one of tying financial profits to growth in realized human potential, community, and environmental quality, but to do that we need measures of these intangible forms of capital that are as scientifically rigorous as they are eminently practical and convenient.

Better measurement is key to reducing the market frictions that inflate the cost of human, social, and natural capital transactions. A truly revolutionary paradigm shift has occurred in measurement theory and practice over the last fifty years and more. New methods make it possible

* to reduce data volume dramatically with no loss of information,
* to custom tailor measures by selectively adapting indicators to the entity rated, without compromising comparability,
* to remove rater leniency or severity effects from the measures,
* to design optimally efficient measurement systems that provide the level of precision needed to support decision making,
* to establish reference standard metrics that remain universally uniform across variations in local impact assessment indicator configurations, and
* to calibrate instruments that measure in metrics intuitively meaningful to stakeholders and end users.

Unfortunately, almost all the admirable energy and resources being poured into business intelligence measures skip over these “new” developments, defaulting to mistaken assumptions about numbers and the nature of measurement. Typical ratings, checklists, and scores provide units of measurement that

* change size depending on which question is asked, which rating category is assigned, and who or what is rated,
* increase data volume with every new question asked,
* push measures up and down in uncontrolled ways depending on who is judging the performance,
* are of unknown precision, and
* cannot be compared across different composite aggregations of ratings.

I have over 25 years experience in the use of advanced measurement and instrument calibration methods, backed up with MA and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago. The methods in which I am trained have been standard practice in educational testing for decades, and in the last 20 years have become the methods of choice in health care outcomes assessment.

I am passionately committed to putting these methods to work in the domain of impact investing, business intelligence, and ecological economics. As is shown in my attached CV, I have dozens of peer-reviewed publications presenting technical and philosophical research in measurement theory and practice.

In the last few years, I have taken my work in the direction of documenting the ways in which measurement can and should reduce information overload and transaction costs; enhance human, social, and natural capital market efficiencies; provide the instruments embodying common currencies for the exchange of value; and inform a new kind of Genuine Progress Indicator or Happiness Index.

For more information, please see the attached 2009 article I published in Measurement on these topics, and the attached White Paper I produced last July in response to call from NIST for critical national need ideas. Various entries in my blog ( elaborate on measurement technicalities, history, and philosophy, as do my web site at and my profile at

For instance, the blog post at explores the idea with which I introduced myself to you here, that the profit motive embodies our collective will for responsible and sustainable business practices, but we hobble ourselves with self-defeating inattention to the ways in which capital is brought to life in efficient markets. We have the solutions to our problems at hand, though there are no panaceas, and the challenges are huge.

Please feel free to contact me at your convenience. Whether we are ultimately able to work together or not, I enthusiastically wish you all possible success in your endeavors.


William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D.

We are what we measure.
It’s time we measured what we want to be.

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