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Using Data to Solve Social Problems: An Interview with David Henderson

By Nell Edgington



David HendersonIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with David Henderson. David is the founder of Idealistics Inc., a social sector consulting firm that helps organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He has worked in the social sector for the last decade providing direct services to low-income and unhoused adults and families, operating a non-profit organization, and consulting with various social sector organizations. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: On your blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, you write a lot about making program evaluation accessible to all nonprofits, even small and under-resourced ones, which is something that a lot of those pushing for evaluation neglect to address. Evaluation can be expensive, time-consuming and poorly executed. What is the essence of good evaluation, and, at a minimum, what should all nonprofits be doing to evaluate their work?

David: Whatever the price tag, a good evaluation helps you make better decisions, a bad evaluation does not. If an organization is not open to changing its course of action regardless of what the data suggest, then evaluation has no meaning. Therefore, the most important step in any evaluation is knowing what you want to evaluate and why.

While some evaluations are expensive, they don’t all have to be. Evaluation does not mean just one thing. There is no one right way to do evaluation. Instead, there are a number of ways organizations can use outcomes metrics to inform their work, ranging from randomized control trials (most accurate and most expensive) to simply monitoring whether a few key indicators are getting better or worse.

More important than the certitude of any one evaluation is the regularity with which an organization uses metrics in decision making. It’s not terribly costly to start every staff meeting with an update on how the people you are helping are doing. But this discipline helps create cultural commitment to using outcomes data in decision making, which is really at the core of any good evaluation strategy.

Nell: Is everything in the social change arena measurable? Are their some public good efforts that are so complex or have so many variables that we cannot measure them, yet they still need to happen?

David: When we think about measurement, we tend to imagine a numeric, linear scale with start and end points. Not everything is quantifiable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not measurable.

Organizations collect information all the time. Some of that data is quantifiable and gets stored in spreadsheets and databases. But we also get a lot of important information through visual observations and conversations.

All of this information, quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective, helps inform decision making. Taking the information we have and establishing evaluative frameworks that help us make systematic program decisions is the real challenge.

Nell: How does government fit into the effort for social change? Can and is government changing quickly enough to keep up and to have a relevant place?

David: Ideally, the non-profit sector would innovate and test social interventions, and governments would take the best innovations to scale. But successful social innovation requires cultural commitment to both evaluation and failure. And in the current funding environment, failure is not an option. That’s a big problem.

With so much pressure on organizations to show evidence of impact, instead of investing in innovating new social solutions, non-profits are hiring marketing consultants shrouded as evaluation experts to help them tell their stories.

If the government is to invest in and scale what works, as the federal Social Innovation Fund purports to do, organizations have to be free to report what does and what does not work. So long as our focus is on story telling instead of truth telling, it’ll be difficult for non-profits to have the latitude to experiment and evaluate freely, leaving the government precious little worth scaling.

Nell: Your particular interest is social change efforts to alleviate poverty. But since poverty is the result of some very serious failures in America’s infrastructure (inadequate education system, broken health care system, etc) is it possible to fix the results of those inadequacies without addressing those much larger structural deficiencies? Or can social entrepreneurs do both?

David: Poverty eradication has to be the goal, but alleviation is pretty darn important to the 43.6 million Americans and billions more worldwide living in poverty today. Social entrepreneurs as well as a myriad of government efforts address both structural causes and the many harms resulting from poverty.

Regardless of a particular intervention’s focus, every effort is more likely to succeed when informed by regular outcomes assessments. Since my firm’s focus is helping organizations use client metrics to make higher impact program decisions, we work with all types of organizations across the anti-poverty spectrum.

Nell: How does your company Idealistics fit into the solution to poverty?

David: Our practice is about helping organizations make smart, high impact decisions that increase social outcomes. Everything we do is underscored by a vision of a social sector that uses evidence in the crafting, implementation, and iterative evaluation of its interventions.

Probably the most important thing we do toward that end is helping organizations establish decision frameworks. A decision framework converts an agency’s theory of change into a tool, or a mathematical model as we think about it, that organizations can test, update, and use in the design and execution of their interventions.

With a solid decision framework in place, we provide analytically oriented consulting and technology systems that help organizations establish data collection pipelines to make sense of their information.

While a lot of our customers hire us so they can better prove to their funders that they’re making a difference, that isn’t our objective. But the fact is our customers do very well with their funders.

Our clients are able to uniquely demonstrate an analytical approach to their work, and have the evidence they need to back their claims of progress, which makes them very competitive in the evidence-deficient social sector landscape. However, for me and my team, the real gratification is not that our customers impress their funders, but that they are better positioned to change the lives of the people they serve.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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