I talk a lot about the many challenges of leading a nonprofit. But sometimes even success itself can be a challenge for a nonprofit. This was particularly true for one of my clients, Breakthrough Austin.
Breakthrough is a very successful nonprofit that identifies cohorts of 6th grade students who want to be the first in their families to graduate from college. The nonprofit then supports those students over the next 12 years so that they reach that goal. Over their 10+ year history, Breakthrough has achieved impressive student outcomes and the support of a deep donor base.
In fact, Breakthrough has been so successful that other schools and school districts have asked to add the Breakthrough program. But that’s not always a good thing, especially when a nonprofit doesn’t know where they can grow most sustainably and with the greatest results.
In the Spring of 2015, Breakthrough board and staff wanted to grow to reach more students, but they didn’t know how to determine when and where. They needed a strategic plan that could help them chart a growth trajectory to reach more students in a sustainable way. And baked into that strategic plan they needed strategic growth filters that helped them assess how to know if new locations were a good fit with their model and their long-term plans.
Breakthrough hired Social Velocity to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, Breakthrough created an advisory committee of board, staff and key external stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which Breakthrough operates, develop Breakthrough’s theory of change, refine their vision and mission statements, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization.
Together we created the various elements of their strategic plan:
- A Marketplace Map, to understand how their core competencies fit with a set of community needs, apart from their competitors and collaborators
- A Theory of Change, to articulate the value they hope to create
- Strategic Growth Filters, to analyze where they should grow
- Revised Vision and Mission Statements
- 3-Year Strategic Plan and Budget
- Year 1 Operational Plan, to execute on the strategic plan
- System for Monitoring the Plan, to make sure it is coming to fruition
Over the course of the 6-month planning period, Breakthrough board and staff became increasingly excited about their new strategic plan and the clarity it gives them about how and when to grow. They are already putting the pieces in place for expansion and are beginning to build the additional capacity necessary to get there.
Creating a strategic plan helped Breakthrough become crystal clear about how to grow strategically and sustainably, as Michael Griffith, Breakthrough Executive Director put it:
“Nell helped us chart a course for the future that meets the needs of our current students and allows us to expand to serve even more. She was skilled at developing a framework that allowed us to grapple with the tough questions of strategy and sustainability. We are thrilled we made this investment and look forward to the coming years with a plan firmly in place!”
If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take clients through, check out the Strategic Planning page, or if you want to read more client case studies, check out the Clients page.
Photo Credit: Breakthrough Austin
It is (almost) Halloween again, so it’s time for my annual Monster List. I’m posting early this year because I’m gearing up for the Independent Sector conference at the end of this month. While past Monster Lists have focused on social change books, or conferences, or tools (you can also see lists from 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011), today’s list is about social change blogs (and online sites and social streams).
There are some incredible ones out there. Some have phenomenal long-form thought pieces, some have a really unique perspective, some are really cantankerous (I love that!), and some aren’t even blogs, but rather online aggregators or forums. Some post daily and some only post once a month or once a quarter.
But what they all have in common is that they will really make you think.
As with all of my Monster Lists, not everything on the list is directly related to social change. Rather, everything on the list has something to offer social change leaders, whether that was the creator’s original intent or not. I firmly believe that we have to get outside our normal walls and normal haunts in order to be inspired, find new solutions, and see things differently. I regularly check the places on this list because I think they have something unique and important to say. And they each help to move my own thinking and writing forward.
But I know there are many more places out there, so please add your favorites to the list in the comments.
- Beth’s Blog
- Blue Avocado
- Brain Pickings
- The Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog
- Chronicle of Philanthropy
- Cynthia Gibson’s aggregated article lists (@cingib)
- The F.B. Heron Foundation’s Pulse Blog
- Forbes Philanthropy
- Full Contact Philanthropy
- Inside Philanthropy
- Markets for Good
- National Council of Nonprofit’s Opinion
- Nonprofit Quarterly
- Nonprofit Tech for Good
- Nonprofits Assistance Fund
- Nonprofit With Balls
- NPR History Dept
- Pew Research Center
- Philanthropy 2173
- Social Currency Blog
- Stanford Social Innovation Review
- Steven Pressfield Online
- White Courtesy Telephone
- Work In Progress: The Hewlett Foundation Blog
Photo Credit: Fred Gwynne and Yvonne DeCarlo in The Munsters 1964 by CBS Television
Later this month I will be heading to Miami for the annual Independent Sector conference. I haven’t been to this conference before, so it’ll be new for me. And I’m excited about it for a number of reasons.
First, former CEO of Independent Sector Diana Aviv spent the last six months on a “listening tour” talking to nonprofit leaders around the country to get a sense of the trends and challenges they face. She recently announced her departure from Independent Sector to lead Feeding America. This will be her last chance to report on what she’s learned and where the sector should focus moving forward. She’s gathered the data, and she’s on her way out, so I imagine she will have lots of interesting things to say.
Because of Aviv’s listening tour, Independent Sector has organized this year’s conference around six key trends she found shaping the sector: 1) Disruption from inequality and environmental degradation, 2) Greater ethnic diversity and new generations of leadership, 3)Technology transforming learning, gathering, and associations, 4)Swarms of individuals connecting with institutions, 5)Business becoming increasingly engaged in social and environmental issues, 6)New models for social welfare and social change.
Beyond these trends, I’m also excited about the conference because it will be one of the first large, national discussions about the Performance Imperative. Launched by the Leap Ambassadors earlier this year, this new definition of a high-performing nonprofit has certainly been shared and discussed widely (including on this blog), but this is one of the largest presentations of the PI among so many nonprofit and philanthropy leaders. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about it.
The schedule also includes some fascinating breakout sessions, like the one where Hewlett Foundation’s Daniel Stid and GuideStar’s Jacob Harold will discuss nonprofit cost structures and why we need to Pay What It Takes to Get Results. Amen! And philanthropic visionary, Lucy Bernolz’s Future of Philanthropy session should be eye opening.
Finally, this conference will be an incredibly impressive gathering of 1,000+ thought leaders and social changemakers. There are so many people on the attendees list that I’d love to meet. Perhaps I can convince a few of them to participate in a future Social Velocity blog interview.
So that’s where I’ll be the last week in October. If you can’t make it, you can view the livestream here, or follow the Twitter stream #ISEmbarks2015. I’ll be Tweeting and blogging from the conference, as time allows. If you are planning to be there, let me know, I’d love to see you!
Photo Credit: Independent Sector
This year on the blog I have been highlighting the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit released by the Leap Ambassador community (of which I am a member) in March. Today I continue the ongoing blog series describing each of the 7 Pillars of the Performance Imperative with Pillar 3: Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies.
You can also read about Pillar 1: Courageous, Adaptive Leadership, and Pillar 2: Disciplined, People-Focused Nonprofit Management.
Pillar 3 describes being crystal clear about what your nonprofit exists to do, how you fit into the external environment, and how you develop and execute smart programs that result in your desired social change. This Pillar is essentially about creating and executing a Theory of Change.
The most important part, in my mind, of Pillar 3 is encouraging nonprofits to define the target population(s) they aim to serve. I have seen too many nonprofit organizations so focused on doing good that they don’t define who they are best positioned to serve and how that relates to who else may be serving them. Nonprofits must get clear about their place amid other services and interventions and, very specifically, who they are hoping to benefit or influence.
As always, you can read a larger description of Pillar 3 in the Performance Imperative (and I strongly encourage you to do so), but, in summary, a nonprofit that exhibits Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies:
- Is clear on the target population they serve.
- Bases the design of their programs on evidence informed assumptions about how the organization’s activities can lead to the desired change (a“theory of change”).
- Designs programs with careful attention to the larger ecosystem in which they operate.
- Implements their programs in a consistently high-quality manner and views collecting and using data as part of implementing high-quality programs.
- Guards against the temptation to veer off course in search of numbers that look good in marketing or funder materials.
Because I think case studies are so critical to understanding what high performance really looks like in a nonprofit, I asked Sam Cobbs, CEO of First Place for Youth, to explain how he led his organization to become a national model for helping foster kids to thrive.
Here is his story:
First Place went through an intensive theory of change process in 2008 where we explored what impact we wanted to make with youth and what type of activities and interactions it would take to achieve that impact. In addition, because the activities and interactions needed to be intensive (and therefore costly) we made the decision to focus our services on the most vulnerable youth. This was measured by how at risk a youth was using a risk assessment scale that took into account, among other factors:
- number of foster care placements
- years or days of homelessness
- job history
- education level, and
- the number and quality of support systems, including positive adult role models.
Based on this criteria, youth who had a higher risk factor score were given priority over youth with lower scores.
After establishing our target population, we began to collect data on what activities and interactions youth were having with the organization and started to analyze these trends. We were looking to understand what our population had in common so that we could understand who we were effective with and who we needed to create better interventions for.
Through this work we determined that we had 8 participant types at baseline and figured out which types we worked better with and what interventions were best used with these sub-populations. We then trained staff to deliver the interventions that were shown to work better with certain sub-populations.
We also began to understand that our sweet spot was kids who had multiple foster care placements, had experienced homelessness at some point, and had a high school diploma or GED. We also learned that we needed to get better with youth who had low risk factor scores because they had an extensive support network, had never experienced homelessness, and were somewhat stable while in foster care. This may go against what we naturally think — that a person with extensive support would do better, but our data showed the opposite. We were also not very good at working with single parents who did not have a high school degree. In the coming year we are going to redo this process using algorithms to see if we get the same results and trends.
If we see that we are not doing well in an area, we research the best practices to deal with that area and direct resources and time to delivering that intervention. For example, because of the data we realized that a portion of our youth had very high trauma scores. Therefore we said we needed to become better at working with youth who have had complex trauma at high rates. We then created an initiative to insure that everyone in the organization understood trauma and its impact on our youth and the best ways to address it. We will see at the end of this year if this investment in trauma informed training has paid off by increasing our outcomes and impact with the youth that we serve.
We are consistently looking at the data to understand where we are doing well and where we need to improve. Its the data, the data, the data.
Photo Credit: First Place for Youth
Since I was out of the office for a good chunk of July and August, I’ve decided to combine both months into one 10 Great Reads list. But let me be clear, there was still lots going on, I just happened to be (somewhat blissfully) missing it.
From philanthropy’s role in inequality, to climate change preparation, to what the Greek financial crisis teaches us about networks, to civic engagement, to digital’s effect on fundraising, to social impact bond results and pizza on the family farm, they were a great couple of months.
In my (limited) view, below are my 10 favorite reads from the past two months. But because I know I missed things, please add to the list in the comments.
- President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker made a lot of news this summer, from his announcement of Ford’s shift to focusing on inequality and unrestricted grants, to his July release of a thought-provoking essay in which he took foundations to task. He argued that foundations have been “cutting the pie into smaller slices,” and he instead encouraged funders to embrace “a new era of capacity building investment.” Because, as he put it, “What civil society needs most, and now more than ever, are resilient, durable, fortified institutions that can take on inequality, fight poverty, advance justice and promote dignity and democracy.” Amen! Ford’s move kicked off an excellent Inequality and Philanthropy forum on the HistPhil blog. And Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan argued that Walker’s message is about significant change, which may be tough for the sector to hear.
- In a fascinating (and rather depressing) article, Eric Holthaus from Slate talks to climate scientists about how they are personally responding to the climate crisis, particularly how they have “factored in humanity’s lack of progress on climate change in [their] families’ future plans.” Yikes.
- Reserve funds are an incredibly critical (but often misunderstood) aspect of nonprofit financial strategy. But as she always does, Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund provides a clear roadmap to understanding.
- Paul Vandeventer uses the summer’s Greek Euro crisis to illustrate when networks (of which the Eurozone is an excellent example) thrive and when they fail. As he puts it, “Ignoring or giving short shrift to…the fundamental principles by which networks operate wastes precious reserves of time, money, and goodwill, and imperils all the hopeful good that organizations, institutions, and countries set out to achieve when they start down the path of networked action.”
- Late July saw a fascinating gathering of social changemakers around civic engagement, the “Breaking Through” conference, hosted by the Knight Foundation. Keynoter Peter Levine argued “This is the year that we can take back American politics. It’s up to us.” It was a great lineup of speakers and sessions about getting people engaged again. You can see video from the conference here.
- Is digital becoming a gamechanger in fundraising? Some think so. And in August Facebook launched a new Donate button, but is it really all that helpful to nonprofits? Some argue that Facebook is critical. Others think the Donate button is a fail.
- August of 2014 saw the record-breaking ALS Ice Bucket fundraising challenge. Many (including me) were skeptical of the campaign, but it turns out that last summer’s financial windfall helped scientists make a breakthrough in research to fight the disease.
- This August was the 10 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. There were many great articles about where New Orleans has been and is now. But my two favorite were Greater New Orleans Foundation President Albert Ruesga’s Ten-Year Perspective on the philanthropic response, and Andrea Gabor’s New York Times article, The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover.
- The first results came in from the New York state social impact bond experiment, and they weren’t great. Goldman Sachs invested in a Rikers Island program that attempted to reduce recidivism among teenagers.The program failed to meet its goals and Goldman lost money. But New York is not giving up, as first Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris said, “This social impact bond allowed the city to test a notion that did not prove successful within the climate we inherited on Rikers. We will continue to use innovative tools on Rikers and elsewhere.”
- I’m always a fan of examples of innovation. NPR provided a glimpse of how family farms are using pizza to reinvent their business model.
Photo Credit: Anne Adrian
In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Jay Geneske, Director of Digital at The Rockefeller Foundation.
Jay directs the Foundation’s digital strategy to engage internal and external audiences, champion organization-wide collaboration, deliver data that informs organization decisions, and pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas. Jay previously served as the Director of Online Communications for Echoing Green, and has also served in digital and brand strategy roles at Carnegie Hall, Shedd Aquarium, and Steppenwolf Theatre.
You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.
Nell: Your role as head of digital for a major foundation is a pretty new kind of position in the world of philanthropy. Obviously the Rockefeller Foundation sees a lot of value (beyond marketing) in digital. How does digital play into the Foundation’s overall strategy?
Jay: Like every other sector, digital has changed the game for social impact. At the Rockefeller Foundation, I’ve been tasked to pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas and perspectives on serving the needs of poor or vulnerable people in a time of rapid change.
That’s a tall order, but an exciting one.
This remit certainly includes how we utilize digital media to tell the story and impact of our work, to bring valuable information to those working in the sector, and to elevate our staff, grantees, and partners as thought leaders.
But digital goes far beyond traditional communication or marketing.
For external audiences, our digital focus is on influence. A carefully planned Twitter campaign can influence a policy maker to prioritize building resilience to the shocks and stresses facing their city. A data-informed segmented email can make a practitioner think more innovatively about solving a social or environmental problem. A well-crafted blog post syndicated on Medium, LinkedIn or elsewhere can connect our staff members to an important partner in the private sector.
Digital also plays an increasingly critical role for our internal audience. We’re reimagining how we work with each other and our hundreds of external partners by meeting people where they are and embracing nimble digital technology. For example, we’re bringing all of our files to the cloud for easy access around the globe and on mobile devices. We’ve also just launched an internal hub that brings valuable real-time data directly to staff members’ fingertips and also more easily captures and stores the critical informal knowledge and insights—typically stuck in email inboxes—that drive strategic decision-making.
What’s most important is the connective tissue between internal and external audiences, and confronting and embracing the increasing overlap and intersection to make us more effective.
Nell: The Rockefeller Foundation turned 100 in 2013 making it one of the oldest U.S. foundations. But the Foundation obviously works hard to stay relevant amid changing social challenges, technology, modes of communication, etc. What drives the Foundation’s desire and ability to be so nimble?
Jay: Our mission has always been to improve the well-being of humanity. To achieve that mission, we must work in a way that is suited to a rapidly changing world, especially where technology and greater interconnectedness have accelerated change and altered the way people live.
This reality manifests throughout our formal initiatives, such as Digital Jobs Africa, which is connecting Africa’s rapidly growing youth population with jobs in the ICT sector. Technology has also clearly changed the game for how and where we do our work. For example, I’ve awarded grants to networks with a robust online presence with the aim to surface new ideas and connect to new people who are solving big social issues.
But in many ways, the sector is just scratching the surface, particularly around data. As David Henderson from FII recently noted, for data to change the world, we must think beyond software and data visualizations. There is a serious lack of investment and focus on how to turn data into action.
Nell: A big initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation is the 100 Resilient Cities project that works to help cities adapt to the “new normal” of continuous disruption. How are you using digital in this particular project?
Jay: Digital plays a critical role in this initiative where our digital strategy is focused on influencing policy and business leaders and practitioners to focus on building resilience to physical, social, and economic challenges facing the world.
Through this work we’ve learned that content is the key to building influence. Our multichannel editorial strategy centers on creating and curating relevant, insightful, and vibrant content that our audience will find immediately actionable. It’s amazing to see how that content then travels around the social web, especially by politicians and business leaders.
We also know that reach is not the same as influence. Although growth is important, our focus has always been on influencing a specific audience, many of whom may not have huge a Twitter following.
Nell: In your work you talk about “digital storytelling” as a critical component of effective social impact, which goes far beyond a more traditional nonprofit approach to marketing. What does effective digital storytelling look like and what is the return on investment for a nonprofit?
Jay: While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them. I’ve also noticed a fast increase in big brands infusing questionable social change messaging and stories into their communications, and I worry that organizations driving real social impact will be left behind.
The Foundation has invested in storytelling –including launching the free tool Hatch for Good— to help organizations tell stories that are strategically planned, creatively crafted, and designed to achieve measurable outcomes.
In many ways, storytelling is an angle or a focus in social impact communications and marketing. It’s a way to stand out, to inspire action and donations, to drive policy change.
We’ve had tens of thousands of people use Hatch for Good in beta, and what’s become clear is that, for all the good they do, our mission statements are preventing us from telling effective stories. We try to insert them, sometimes word-for-word, into every story. And the result is a story so crowded that our audience never had a chance to take action.
Effective storytelling shows the human consequences of the problem our organizations address—and the solutions that give people hope. Stories about the people whose lives are directly affected by the work, and about the people who join forces with us to create change. These stories exemplify our mission statement, but are not bound by it.
When done strategically, these stories can prove a return on investment, case studies of which are posted on Hatch for Good.
Note: As you know, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. I’ll be back later this week, but I have left you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. The last, but certainly not least, is Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony is CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary that works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. Here is his guest post…
When we asked nonprofit leaders to identify top challenges as part of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 32% said “achieving long-term sustainability,” by far the most popular response.
What does it take to reach the promised land of sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best measures of organizational sustainability is not stability but adaptive capacity, the ability to act as circumstances require and opportunities allow. A truly sustainable enterprise must have the capacity to nimbly respond to external conditions. A strong balance sheet must allow for flexibility.
In the nonprofit sector, where pursuit of a mission is paramount, the ability to thoughtfully tack toward progress as funding conditions and community needs change is a hallmark of a success. That does not change the reality that our sector is notorious for restricted funding and hampered by a lack of available enterprise-level investment capital.
So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?
Here are a few ways that nonprofits can build their adaptive “muscle” and be better prepared to change as the environment demands and opportunities allow.
Know your costs.
Nonprofits must understand the true costs of providing programs in order to make informed decisions about whether grants or contracts are able to cover those full costs, and how much subsidy might be required from other sources to fill the gap.
Many times, we see nonprofits use a grant amount as a starting point, and try to design a program that fits with the award amount. Heights and Hills, which provides services for older adults in Brooklyn and their families, asked us to help them take a different approach. Using customized tools, leadership now understands not only the current costs of running particular programs, but also how those costs change based on a variety of factors.
Like Heights and Hills, nonprofits need to be able to answer questions such as:
- “Which programs may be too costly if they are not fully supported by direct revenue?”
- “How do our costs change if we expand a program and need to hire additional staff?”
- “What if the amount of grant funding changes?”
- “Where might collaboration with another organization serve us well?”
Just say “no.”
The social sector attracts passionate activists who have a knack for seeing solutions where others see problems, and who are often driven by a deep inclination to say “yes” to those in need. But in order to build and preserve adaptive capacity and to truly remain mission focus, leaders must protect the nonprofit enterprise and its ability to continue its work. The common practice of accepting pennies on the dollar to deliver programs perpetuates unhealthy funding patterns and expectations. Armed with data about true costs makes it easier to say “no” to opportunities that ultimately detract from an organization’s ability to move the needle on mission.
New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families did just that, and declined to pursue a large government contract because it sapped too many “indirect” resources. While at first glance, it seemed that the small allotment for “overhead” was enough, the amount didn’t nearly cover actual costs associated with the time that executive, finance and administrative staff were spending to keep the program afloat.
Saying “no” to a fiscally unhealthy grant preserves the organization’s ability to serve its clients well into the future. If we want to change embedded, unhealthy funding practices — and perhaps even elements of nonprofit culture that fuel these — we must be more willing to say “no.”
Ultimately, the benefit of adaptive capacity is the freedom to pursue what works. Some programs are more easily measured than others, but nonprofits and our funders need to invest in understanding impact. This is especially critical as we move toward an outcomes-based funding environment.
Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education, found a rare partner in the Ford Foundation when it decided to dramatically change its approach. Scenarios was open to asking, “Are our programs working?” and accepted that its core assumptions were inaccurate. With the Ford Foundation’s support, the organization revamped its program to focus on fostering critical thinking, which has tremendous influence on youth behavior.
Evaluating programs, experimenting with new ways of meeting mission and measuring outcomes over time are necessary to positive social change.
Seek support for major changes.
Money for programs is far more plentiful than money for enterprise-level change. Our survey found that nearly half of nonprofits report that they can have an open dialogue with funders about expanding programs, but just 6% feel comfortable conversing with funders about flexible capital for organizational growth or change.
There are exceptions. The California Community Foundation has partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund and several others to offer strategy, management, and financial services aimed at strengthening the region’s nonprofits and building the durability of the sector. New York Community Trust has launched an initiative to help small arts organizations navigate various transformations and milestones such as leadership succession, business model changes, and facility renovations or moves. And New York’s Change Capital Fund is a collaboration of 17 foundations and financial institutions that is funding five New York community development organizations to help them refocus their strategies and develop new business models to address persistent poverty more effectively.
It is time to challenge the notion that funders aren’t willing to talk about money for adaptation and adaptive capacity, and to make the case for the right kinds of support.
It is hard to know what will be required of our sector in the years to come, but a steady trend of increased demand seems to indicate that the answer will be, “more.” Limited resources make doing more of the same nearly impossible. We must change the way we approach the challenges of our day, and organizations with adaptive capacity will lead the way.
Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. First up is David Henderson, Director of Analytics for Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit which leverages the power of information to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. David also writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. Here is his guest post…
In early June I was invited to be on a data mining panel at the Stanford Social Innovation Review Data on Purpose conference. The conference was full of nonprofit executives interested in tapping the big data revolution for social good. Naturally, the panel moderator asked us panelist to weigh in on if, and how, data was changing the social sector. Characteristically, I turned a feel-good question into a critique of the state of analytics in the social sector, which I’ve written about elsewhere and will expand on here.
Data is not changing the social sector. I would argue it’s not changing the world either. While it is very likely that data is changing your world, I do not believe data is changing the world.
For all the talk about how data is revolutionizing the world and that software is eating everyone’s lunch, the fact is that for the over two billion people who have no lunch to eat (literally and figuratively), the impact of the data revolution is muted, if nonexistent all together. Changing the world indeed.
The corporate data revolution has largely been fueled by data exhaust. Data exhaust is comprised of the various digital breadcrumbs you and I leave all over the Internet but that we might not think about as data in a traditional sense. For example, companies like Facebook and Amazon don’t simply log data when you click “submit”, they track your every movement around the Internet, logging every click and clack, allowing unprecedented marketing optimization. All these additional metrics are data exhaust, as consumers are almost passively generating data marketers can capture and monetize for almost nothing.
On the social sector data conference circuit, countless data-wonk hopefuls mindlessly espouse all the incredible things nonprofits can do now that data acquisition costs have been driven almost to zero. This is nonsense, as the social sector has no such data exhaust analogue, which is why the social sector doesn’t truly have big data.
Nonprofits often work with populations with a number of barriers, which drives up the cost of data acquisition relative to for-profit counterparts. Just some of the data collection barriers nonprofits grapple with include working with populations with low levels of literacy or limited to no access to technology. How exactly is one going to generate digital exhaust without any digital possessions in the first place, or while working three jobs to support her family?
Obviously, you don’t. The barriers too many people face in this world are exactly why nonprofits are in the business of social change in the first place. But it is also why we are so poorly poised to capitalize on the alleged data ubiquity, as that revolution is not permeating class boundaries to the extent technology evangelists would have us believe.
Another reason why data is not changing the world, or rather, why the social sector is failing to change the world with data, is that by and large we simply are not investing in the necessary capacity to turn data into insights.
While a new “data for the social sector” company with an unfortunate misspelling of a common word seems to pop up every day, there are very few companies actually building the tools the sector needs to put data in to action. Meanwhile, our technological overlords in Silicon Valley are depressingly stuck on the assumption that innovation in the social sector means fundraising software. Sigh.
If we want to use data to change the world, we need to think beyond software tools and simple (if colorful) data visualizations. Nonprofits need to invest in building their own analytical capacity, both by hiring analysts and also by investing in the entire staff’s ability to be intelligent consumers of data analysis.
Illusion of Insight
Everyone loves the idea of being data driven, but very few organizations actually want to make the investment. My employer, the Family Independence Initiative (FII), did make that investment. In turn, FII is now able to not only run regressions and build decision tree models, but can continuously learn from its data, augmenting every level of the organization from Chief Executive to line staff.
That investment is not cheap. Worse yet, like any good analyst, I can be a major buzz-kill. Much of my time is spent explaining why a particular regression coefficient doesn’t necessarily mean we are super awesome. In fact, a good analyst can make you less sure of your social impact.
But facing the tough reality paves the way to real impact. We cannot collectively do more without exactingly quantifying how little we’ve accomplished. These are tough truths, and most nonprofits would rather assume the hypothesis of their greatness, leaving no room for data’s insights.
The Path Forward
Just because data is not changing the world does not mean data cannot change the world. I believe it can, which is why I do what I do. While by and large nonprofits fail to invest in rigorous analysis, organizations like GiveDirectly are leading by example, showing what is possible when fact is paramount to fundraising.
Ultimately, being data driven is less about statistical techniques and more about a relentless commitment to the truth. The truth is that data is not changing the world. But if we, as a sector, can elevate the truth above all else, then we might just be able to change the world after all.