I recently spoke at the Digital Shoreditch Conference about the relationship between Technology and Social Impact and I was struck by how many people in the audience seemed to connect with a particular strand of what I was saying. I spoke about a few areas (arguably too many for only 10 minutes!) – from the mind set of collaboration and building on each other’s work that you see at a hackathon, to crowdsourcing, to the use of technology in areas or with groups that are ‘hard to reach’*. But it was when I got to the topic that I’m most passionate about, that I saw the resonance I’d been looking for in the audience.
Yes, data. It’s not a particularly sexy topic and it’s often really difficult to collect when you’re working with unstable situations (whether on the political, geographic, or personal levels). But it’s one of the areas where I see that we have the most to learn from the tech sector.
The charity sector is traditionally very risk averse. With funds coming from individual donors, the government, and other public sources, organisations are contractually and morally beholden to delivering the services they’ve promised. If they don’t, there is a public outcry. In many respects, this is a good thing as it keeps accountability high. But the problem with this, is that it doesn’t leave much room for innovation or for ‘pivoting’ towards services that might be more efficient or effective. With resources stretched, especially given the constant drive to limit overheads, there’s often little time, money or staff to step back and assess how to measure impact or what impact you’re measuring – or in some cases, to measure anything at all beyond anecdotes and basic delivery stats. The trouble with this is that you then have no solid data to base decisions on. Decisions have to be made on gut instinct, which is often informed by the most visible examples of success or failure. But if you’re measuring impact correctly, you might find that these stand-out examples aren’t statistically significant or only work for a particular group of people or under particular circumstances. Without the data it’s hard to capture an accurate view of what’s happening in the wider context. And crucially, without the data to give you that overview of your services, it’s hard to know where is best to channel your efforts.
There’s a story of a tech start up that is particularly relevant here. It started life as a social check in app, the kind you use on Facebook to tell the world you went to the latest cool bar/club/restaurant, etc. But this app was ‘cluttered’ and ‘overrun with features’. It wasn’t getting the take up of other similar apps so the founders focused on getting feedback from users and then, crucially, used that feedback (i.e. data) to make decisions about where to focus their efforts. That led to scrapping the social check in and all of its messy add-ons, as they saw that what people loved was the ability to take a photo, add a filter to it, and share that with their networks. This led to a streamlined focus on a social photo app with 11 filters… and Instagram, one of the most rapidly successful apps ever, was born.
My point here is that without data, the founders of Instagram wouldn’t have been able to make an effective decision about where to focus. Feedback was crucial to their success. In the social impact sector, we need to embrace a similar focus on gathering data so that we can have those hard conversations about which services are the most effective to invest in and why. Funders too, need to embrace more open conversations– when people are afraid of losing funding, they’re unlikely to share learning. Instead, we need to embrace the tech-sector’s approach to failure – that it is an opportunity to pivot towards a more effective solution.
Economic Change can help you do exactly that. I am so proud to work for an organisation that helps socially driven organisations to measure, monitor, and assess their impact so that they can maximize their benefit. Economic Change can help you embed a management system that captures data from your staff, from service users, from your funders and donors, and anybody else you’re interacting with. Our expertise is with Salesforce, which is donated free and with heavily discounted licenses to registered ‘non-profits’ (I’ll save my dislike of that term for another blog post!). As Salesforce is cloud based, you can access that data from anywhere, including a mobile or tablet, so that staff can update records anywhere – from a field in Uganda to a primary school in Tower Hamlets. Salesforce’s open API, easy report builder, and clear dashboards also make it easier to collect and share data, so we can embed a more collaborative mind-set within the sector to build on each other’s successes and learn from our collective failures.
Luckily, more funders are seeing the value of being ‘investment ready’ or ‘contract ready’ with a management system that works across the organisation. For a few specific funders who can help with this type of project, check out our blog for details of some upcoming events we’re running about funding.
If you’d like to get a deeper understanding of what kind of data to capture, you can also check out our Masterclass series on measuring social impact or developing a management system. Or just get in touch directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, to discuss your requirements!