The Mallet Effect: The Compelling Metric Behind a Historic Gift

Proponents of "effective altruism" argue that the best metric for judging the effectiveness of an initiative is "lives saved per dollar." It's a powerful metric, but a slightly nebulous one, outside of certain clear-cut areas such as malaria prevention or vaccinations. How do you quantifiably prove its accuracy in other areas? Will $100 to fight poverty in Africa save five lives? Ten? Fifty? And if the answer is, say, eight, how does one calculate that figure?

Coming up with solid metrics can be even tougher when working on domestic social issues, where it can be hard in many cases to nail down a clear causal link between a nonprofit's activities and outcomes in policy or people's lives. Absent a significant investment in professional evaluation studies, which many nonprofits can't afford, grantseekers are left touting a variety of indicators of success that can feel pretty mushy to funders.

Yet sometimes, coming up with metrics to prove an initiative's value needn't be an ambiguous or relative exercise. Sometimes the metrics hit you over the head with a (figurative) mallet.

That was certainly the case for long-time Cincinnati benefactor Richard "Dick" Rosenthal, who just gave $15 million to the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at UC's Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice at the College of Law. The gift, which marks the largest ever for the college and any innocence program, ensures the program will exist for perpetuity.

Now about those metrics.

Since its inception, the school has freed 24 innocent prisoners in Ohio alone. Collectively speaking, these individuals served a total of 450 years of prison time. So, in other words, the project has unequivocally salvaged 24 lives.

Stripped of any relative or ancillary considerations, these are compelling metrics. But they become even more impressive when you consider the projects runs a shoestring operation. Its current staff consists of one director, one executive staff assistant, three staff attorneys, one legal researcher, writing specialist and outreach coordinator, and 17 fellows.

Each year, about 20 students spend a full year working on cases, digging through files, interviewing witnesses, writing case briefs and applying their knowledge of forensic techniques like DNA testing. Through hands-on learning, they discover how to build a case and what can make a case go wrong, resulting in a tragic injustice.

Then there's the following "soft" metric at play: More than 250 students have graduated from the program. The students spread out far and wide, taking their experience and desire for social justice with them. We'll go out on a limb and argue that many of them are doing good work. You can't enter a figure in a spreadsheet that reflects the impact of this kind of reach. But it's an important consideration nonetheless.

Rosenthal obviously agrees. "The Ohio Innocence Project has a laudable mission: to free every innocent person in Ohio. I'm proud to help ensure its life-saving work continues now and forever," he said. In 2004, Dick and his late wife, Lois, gave $1 million to create and endow the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice. 

Rosenthal’s investment will boost recruitment of top students and faculty, both nationally and internationally, and support vital programming at the OIP. In recognition of the monumental gift, the law school will add three Lois and Richard Rosenthal Clinical Professors of Law. Students will be identified as Rosenthal Student Fellows. Finally, the OIP will occupy custom-designed, named space in the new building with upgraded work spaces, offices and technology.

In related analysis, check out our January piece on the Colorado Innocence Project and the donors who support it.