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RSA Fellow Jim Fruchterman is a leading social entrepreneur and CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit technology company based in Silicon Valley, which has created five world changing technology social enterprises (and isn't done yet). His dream is to bring Silicon Valley's technology innovations to all of humanity, not just the richest 5%. He is a former rocket engineer who also founded two successful for-profit high technology companies and has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, in recognition of his work.

Data, data everywhere, but can it be used to deliver social good? Nonprofits and social enterprises are grappling with increasing donor demands for data that demonstrates their funding has led to long-term social impact while, at the same time, trying to gather data that will help them make programmatic improvements. Is it the same data or different?

This new data-centric approach is familiar in the for-profit world. However, the social sector is lagging far behind when it comes to data. Monitoring and evaluation is often still focused on retrospective assessments of three year (or longer) grants. Donors want evidence of impact, but are generally reluctant to pay for the costly studies to provide that evidence. How do we as the stakeholders in the social good sector pull together around data?

My organization, Benetech, was founded as Silicon Valley’s deliberately nonprofit technology company. We work on socially beneficial applications of technology, where for-profit companies cannot afford to go. As one of the earliest successful tech social enterprises, we are lucky to be connected to the most innovative crowd of social sector leaders you could imagine. It seems like almost every week I’m approached by another organization about how data can help improve their impact. It’s amazing to see how similar the tech problems are, even though one organization may be working to stop human trafficking and another trying to help indigenous people reclaim their land. It’s abundantly clear that technology could be doing more for social change.

Those intense conversations with my peers about technology and data has led to a major new article, Using Data for Action and for Impact, now out as the cover article on the Summer 2016 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

My goal in the article is to demystify the data explosion, and see that it’s harnessed for positive social impact, while respecting the values (like privacy) of our fields. I believe that the data revolution is coming, and I have a vision of how to make data work for far more of the stakeholders. I believe we need data to do double duty!

First, we need data to help program staff deliver programs more effectively. I call this “Data for Action.” If we can make data sing and dance for program staff and management, as well as the people in the communities we serve, we will see greater adoption of and cooperation with data activities. If data work gets in the way, and becomes a significant drag on day-to-day mission-focused activities, it is going to be much less successful—even if it’s mandated.

Second, we need to make much of that same data relevant in terms of showing long-term social change. I call that “Data for Impact.” That’s what donors really want to see, and of course it’s what everybody involved in social change organizations wants as well.

In the article, I explore the questions we use data to answer. Questions like:

  • How Much Did We Spend?
  • How Much Did We Do? and
  • How Much Did It Matter?

Of course, I also explore some of the barriers to using data effectively, and why these three questions get progressively harder to answer. The first question is an example of one where the social sector is already gathering and using data well. Accounting for spending is a requirement to operate a nonprofit organization, and aggregating data is straightforward. The second question tackles activities, and creates new challenges. Groups working on the same social issue may be delivering different services; it becomes difficult comparing apples to oranges. The third and most important question is central to the mission of organizations and donors alike, but we often don’t have any data demonstrating impact.

My dream is that if we get better at using data to run more effective programs, we will be laying the groundwork to connect better with answering questions of long-term impact. It is clear to me that data will be playing a larger role in how the sector operates in the future.

However, increased use of data will also be disruptive. It will require new skillsets and new mindsets. Using data to improve both programmatic effectiveness and long-term impact means embracing the learning opportunities that come from failure. Donors will need to support innovative organizations that use data as they shift program activities away from elements that don’t work toward those that do.

I hope you have a chance to read the SSIR article, and take the opportunity to comment if you have observations and/or questions from your experience as a stakeholder in the coming data revolution in the social good sector. The time for data is indeed now. I’m excited about the potential but recognize we have a great deal of work to do to harness the power of data to deliver much greater social impact!


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