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Analyzing the Intangible

URI Sets Out to Measure Peace

Analyzing the Intangible

by Gaea Denker

Every nonprofit wants to think it’s helping the world. But in a field as intangible as peacebuilding, where small interactions slowly build trust over generations, how can peace proponents know their efforts are really working?


The United Religions Initiative (URI), a grassroots interfaith effort in 107 countries, bringing together people from different beliefs in dialogue, has set out to explore a completely new way of understanding and interpreting their peacebuilding impact. It is creating and simultaneously undertaking an immense impact-assessment project designed to exactly answer the question: What’s working?

URI pulled together a diverse group of people from its worldwide network and presented them with a challenge: find a way to measure impact. The scope of the project is daunting, because numerical values simply don’t exist for the kind of data they are collecting. Researchers can’t simply measure Cambodia’s “increase in peacefulness” over the last calendar year, or count the number of wars that didn’t happen in Nigeria. So the first step was to invent a novel method to measure peacebuilding and then apply it to the results of their own efforts.

P19: “Committed to Organizational Learning and Adaptation”

The group of analysts calls itself “P19,” referencing URI’s 19th founding Principle: “We are committed to organizational learning and adaptation.”

“We’re trying to figure out if we’re doing what we say we’re doing,” says Frederica Helmiere, URI Multiregion coordinator and P19 group member from Washington state, USA. “URI says we’re ‘creating cultures of peace, justice and healing,’ but those are really intangible things to try to measure.” Therefore, the project raises provocative questions, such as, “What does it mean for there to be an increased culture of peace somewhere?”

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

Maria Crespo, URI director of Cooperation Circle Support and P19 group member from Buenos Aires, Argentina remarks that, “URI is unique because it is trying to analyze the organization from the bottom up. It brings questions from the people to better understand URI, rather than the other way around. Every single partner is involved not only in the answer, but in the questions too.”

Lee Cuba, a sociologist and P19 project consultant from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, USA describes sample questions for URI grassroots groups. “How did you know you had a successful event or had a good year? It’s not just about counting the number of people who showed up for something. It’s about measuring the way people interact… how they create something that may not have been there before.”

“This is not information extracted from communities to be used for our own edification,” notes Frederica. “We asked our grassroots groups what information they need in order to be more effective – basically, what do you need to know about yourselves and how can we help you learn it about yourselves?”

Commenting on the process of developing a methodology, Lee notes that, “One of the things we figured out very early on is the immense richness and diversity of URI. If you’re going to be able to assess its impact, you have to use diverse methodologies.” And to discover those various approaches, we had to do some in-depth observations, and Cambodia and Rwanda were chosen as good places to start the discernment process.

Discerning what’s Important in Cambodian Grassroots Interfaith

P19 Team members in a mangrove swamp during their 2017 visit to the URI community in Cambodia. – Photo:    URI

P19 Team members in a mangrove swamp during their 2017 visit to the URI community in Cambodia. – Photo: URI

The P19 group’s approach was put to the test in its first field visit, which took place in Cambodia in May 2017. As they talked with members of local Cambodian grassroots groups, called Cooperation Circles, one useful data-gathering methodology that came to the forefront was storytelling. Community members were asked to relate stories about how being a part of URI affected them and how their work through URI impacted their community. They took away interesting messages about URI’s impact in Cambodia – such as the importance the grassroots groups place on youth involvement.

The P19 group members were there to do more than just observe and assess. They participated in events with a local Cooperation Circle called Interfaith Youth Circle of Cambodia, answering questions about interfaith cooperation and environmental work for local high school students, and facilitating conversations between students and local monks. The CC does this kind of work regularly, in addition to planting trees in deforested areas and helping to reunite children who have been separated from their families at the Vietnam border.

Rwanda and Beyond – Measuring Interfaith Impact

The Cambodia visit was first in a long string of informational field visits. The P19 group traveled next to Rwanda, inviting community members there to shape the construction of the impact-measurement project. Future visits will take the team through Latin America to communities in Brazil, Argentina, including input from communities in large metropolitan areas as well as remote Indigenous villages.

Respect for diversity is written into URI’s founding charter: “We respect the uniqueness of each tradition, and differences of practice or belief.” Because analysis methodologies vary by culture, and because URI’s network spans so many cultures, the approach to data-gathering must be adapted in a culturally sensitive way for all participants to find meaningful.

Conversation with Cambodian community members – Photo:    URI

Conversation with Cambodian community members – Photo: URI

“We recognize that there’s no single entity that is URI,” Frederica observes. “We’re trying to fully embrace the idea of this being a grassroots network, not just in name but in practice.”

When Maria Crespo first joined URI in 1997, she and the other initial members believed that such an analytic attempt was impossible – that a person’s internal transformation couldn’t be measured from the outside. But, more than two decades later, she realizes that her own transformation, as a product of her URI work, has influenced every part of her life, from the way she interacts with her community to the way she has raised her children. “I am very excited about this,” she says. “We aren’t getting lost in the conventional forms of measuring impact, but are open to include diversity – diversity of religion and diversity of methodologies.”

The remarkable thing about the P19 project is that it comes from an intrinsic desire on the part of URI to improve methodology and effectiveness. There are no donors or grants imposing an obligation. “In the nonprofit world you always have to prove what difference you’re making,” says Frederica. “We’re not doing this to prove anything to someone holding money or power over us. We’re doing it to really, truly, learn.”


URI has promised articles in the future of the P19 team, what it learns, and how that learning can be used to make interfaith work more effective everywhere.

Header Photo: Pxhere