In a World Beset by Conflict, Could Better Ways to Measure Peace Change the Funding Equation?

Kyiv region, ukraine. kibri_ho/shutterstock

The question of what, exactly, constitutes “peace” is especially relevant these days. We’re living in a restive, multipolar world where threats to peace include everything from renewed great power conflict to various forms of highly localized criminality, terrorism and unrest, including within the United States. 

But despite the obvious need for peacebuilding dollars, U.S. philanthropies’ support for that work still hasn’t recovered from a hollowing-out that followed the Soviet Union’s fall and the premature assumption that a U.S.-led world order had triumphed. As Stephen Del Rosso, senior program director for international peace and security at the Carnegie Corporation, told us last year, “In the last 10 to 20 years, there have been fewer and fewer foundations that are interested in peace and security. And, you know, less urgency, less support.”

The war in Ukraine, of course, has shone a light on that deficit. Yet it’s still unclear to what extent Russia’s invasion — not to mention countless other breaches of peace around the world — will galvanize more donors to support peacebuilding over the long term. One problem, as explained to me by Adrienne Lemon, director of the institutional learning team at Search for Common Ground: “While we’ve all recognized peace is very clearly important for the development of a society and for a society to flourish, it’s often not thought of as something that you can specifically invest in.” 

Though currents may be shifting when it comes to how philanthropy evaluates funding programs, there will likely always be a tendency among foundations to want to know what their funding is trying to accomplish, and how they will know if it succeeded. With a daunting topic like maintaining peace in the world, funders are surely scared away by uncertainty. 

Lemon and her colleagues have sunk their teeth into the complex task of figuring out how to better measure peace, and hopefully, catalyze greater investment. Search for Common Ground’s new Peace Impact Framework, which it’s currently in the midst of piloting, has been designed to offer a more quantitative means of measuring peace that nonetheless remains grounded in the holistic, human experience of conflict. 

According to Lemon, the new framework represents a rethinking of common ways to conceptualize effectiveness in peacebuilding. “We tore apart the monitoring and evaluation structures that we had and deconstructed them a bit and thought about, who do they serve? What are they for? And what are they allowing us to understand? And what are the limitations? The Peace Impact Framework grew out of that space.”

Melding the quantitative and the qualitative

Search for Common Ground (shorthanded as just Search) dates back to the Cold War era and now has a footprint spanning the globe, with a presence in 29 countries and its hands in conflict prevention and mitigation everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as the United States. 

Search’s long list of funding partners includes governments, corporations and multilateral institutions, as well as numerous private grantmakers. Top philanthropic backers over the years include peacebuilding stalwarts like the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund and donors giving through places like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Vanguard Charitable. Search also counts among its supporters the Howard Buffett Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Initiative and the Skoll Foundation.

As she related Search’s mindset around the framework, Lemon frequently made an analogy to health. “It’s hard to think about what perfect health looks like,” she said. “Most of us are kind of in between, right? We’re not in peak perfect form, but we’re also not, hopefully, close to critical condition. But there are markers that we can use to understand what type of risks you might be experiencing.”

Rather than thinking about peace “in the most perfect form,” the team sought markers to indicate whether a given community is moving in the right direction or away from it. Crucially, these markers include both quantitative indicators and qualitative forms of evaluation — as well as ones that could be said to straddle that divide. 

The team sought input from over 70 organizations and undertook a literature review to determine five themes that people agree matter the most when it comes to looking at conflict. They landed on the following: physical violence, personal agency, polarization, institutional legitimacy and resource investment. Then, Lemon said, three “pillars” emerged, representing three complementary ways to take a community’s temperature around those themes.

The first pillar involves evaluating lived experience, which Lemon characterized as a qualitative process that then becomes quantifiable. “It’s really about asking people, what matters to you? What would you expect to see change in your community?” She added, “It gives you that contextuality, so you can understand the difference between what peace would look like in Afghanistan versus, say, Nigeria.”

The second pillar is the most quantitative, and involves nailing down specific metrics touching on each of those five themes. They include things like the percentage of people who feel safe walking around their neighborhood (under the theme of physical violence), or the percentage of people who are satisfied with services they seek from authorities (under institutional legitimacy). Lemon compared these markers to the standard measurements doctors take at a preventative visit, like temperature and blood pressure.

The third pillar, shared reflection, is the most qualitative and centers practitioner observations. Lemon compared this to the effects — and side effects — of a medical treatment: What actually happens when an investment in peace occurs? Those outcomes could be something like a new piece of legislation or a peace agreement, or, on the flip side, the breakdown of a prior agreement or understanding. 

“Ironically, that doesn’t actually get measured that often,” Lemon said. “In a lot of the [materials] that you read or see published, those types of things aren’t actually measured, even though it would feel obvious that they should be.”

Reevaluating evaluation

The shortcomings of existing ways to measure peacebuilding kept coming up in my discussion with Lemon, and that’s no wonder. The fact that it’s so hard to measure peace has been one of the main factors standing in the way of greater philanthropic investment over the years. As Carnegie’s Del Rosso told us last year, “The fact is, it’s very difficult to prove that you’ve had substantive success in areas where you can’t solve the conflicts, but you can manage them.”

According to Lemon, much of the trouble stems from social science convention — specifically, the predominance of the randomized controlled trial even when studying fields like conflict mitigation, where it’s next to impossible to actually control the variables involved.

But Lemon also pointed to funder dynamics. “A lot of times, donors really need to be able to show the numbers for what they’ve invested in, which means it’s sometimes very hard for them to funnel lots of qualitative data,” she said.

That’s a very familiar refrain here in the philanthrosphere. And while the hegemony of metrics isn’t quite as all-encompassing as it used to be, nonprofit grantees will attest that funders’ tendency to insist on hard numbers is still alive and well. Search for Common Ground’s Peace Impact Framework is an attempt to distill meaningful metrics while also pairing them with qualitative data to add context. “That allows us to think about this in a more complex way. And also, I think, in a more human and interesting way,” Lemon said. 

While it’s still early days for the framework — Search has apparently yet to get it out in front of many philanthropic donors — the hope is that reevaluating evaluation in this way will prompt more donors to get on board with peacebuilding. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get that new David Rockefeller we’ve kept our fingers crossed for. 

In a broader sense, Search’s attempt to meld both quantitative and qualitative evaluation into a more humane whole speaks to philanthropic currents that go beyond the peacebuilding space alone. After many years of metrics-obsessed strategic philanthropy, we’re now seeing a counter-movement toward trust-based practices where evaluation by the funder is sometimes removed from the picture entirely. 

Search for Common Ground’s new framework may point to a viable middle ground, where evaluative criteria aren’t dictated by the funder, but emerge more humbly and organically from the context of the problems both funder and grantee are trying to solve.