By Molly Fincher, World Ark writer

MADHUBANI, India — Project participants, Heifer employees, donors and people just getting to know Heifer all have at least one pressing question in common: How do we know the Heifer model really works?

Traditionally Heifer answered questions about the impact of our projects with two numbers: how many animals were given, and how many families were enrolled in any given project. These touchpoints paint a simplified picture of what we do, and address what most people know Heifer best for: giving livestock to families in need. But in truth, these two statistics don’t even come close to communicating Heifer’s full impact. When a project participant receives that llama or flock of ducks, the project isn’t done—we’re just getting started.

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It’s a big challenge to mark progress on the intangibles that are the true heart of Heifer’s work. Empowering women, protecting the environment and unifying communities are important goals that aren’t easily quantifiable. But in 2012, we made measuring our impact more comprehensively a priority for all of our projects.

One of the first Heifer projects measured with this new criterion is in Madhubani, India, where baseline numbers were captured at the project’s inception in 2012. Progress was measured three years later.

The impact studies gauged women’s empowerment by measuring how much control women had over family finances. In the Madhubani project, the percentage of women with equitable control over family income has more than doubled in the past three years.

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Also measured was access to sanitation, which is a huge public health problem in many places around the world. It’s especially serious in India, where millions use the bathroom in the open. India’s immense population means that people are hard-pressed to find a place where the waste won’t come into contact with other people, water sources or crops. Not only does this spread disease like crazy, but young women are often targeted and assaulted while trying to find somewhere to use the bathroom at night. The Heifer project in Madhubani includes a rotating fund specifically for the purpose of improving sanitation. So far, 152 families have completed construction of their new toilets.

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Investment in healthy soil may seem an unlikely indicator of progress, but healthy soil means healthy crops, which mean healthy people and better prices for the farmer selling those crops. Teaching ways to build healthy soil is an important part of fulfilling the “sustainable” part of our “sustainable agriculture” credo. One of the best things about focusing on soil health is that it often doesn’t require buying expensive fertilizer or equipment. It’s all about gaining the knowledge to use what many farmers already have in spades, like manure, to the best effect. Heifer farmers are trained and encouraged to use intercropping techniques and to plant fodder crops that can improve soil fertility. Add composting and vermiculture (worms) to the mix, and this year’s crop is looking up.

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Increase in income is the most straightforward way to measure progress, and project participants in Madhubani made great strides. Heifer’s ultimate goal is to close the gap between the income the farmers with whom we work typically earn (usually at or below the extreme poverty line) and the income they need to thrive and be self-reliant (also known as a living income). Extreme poverty is defined as living on $1.90 or less per day. The average income for our project families in Madhubani is about double what it used to be: Daily income rose to about $4.50 for original families and about $3.70 for pass-on families. By the end of the project, we aim for these daily incomes to rise even more.