Earlier today, I read an article trumpeting the “success” of a charity drive that received a lot of donations and that raised a lot of money. I’m not going to link to the article because I don’t want to single out one particular endeavor, but I’m sure you can find a ton of examples of this kind of thinking without a whole lot of Googling effort.

As William Easterly, Christopher Coyne, and others have pointed out, we tend to measure the “success” of a charitable endeavor or an aid project in terms of the resources consumed. Only slightly better are metrics that tell us something like the number of meals served or schools built or children enrolled in different programs. These aren’t “successes,” though. At best, they are steps toward an outcome like human flourishing. It’s a huge leap, and one not particularly well-supported by the evidence, from “we enrolled a bunch of kids in a program” to “their lives are demonstrably better” (Lant Pritchett discussed this in a recent EconTalk on “Education in Poor Countries“).

In Summer 2012, I attended a “Helping Without Hurting” workshop with my pastor. If you believe, as I do, that we have an obligation to steward our resources wisely and to help those who aren’t as fortunate as we are, then we can’t stop at pleasant-sounding announcements about how we collected 100 toys or served 1000 meals or what have you. As Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert discussed in When Helping Hurts and as Robert Lupton explains in Toxic Charity, well-intentioned attempts to intervene in others’ lives have an unfortunate tendency to backfire. A lot of our charitable undertakings consume resources, but just because we’ve consumed resources doesn’t mean we’ve created value.