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Hetal Sheth 7/20/17 5:14 PM 4 min read

What is lean data management?

Lean Data, a term popularized by Acumen, refers to collecting high quality data related to social impact in order to demonstrate social change, and to do so with extremely efficient use of resources.

In the social sector, there is a growing need to collect and make better use of our data. We need more data both for informed decision-making and capacity building. And yet, many organizations struggle to keep up logistically with a heavier load of data management.

What's more, different organizations use different methods for impact data collection from paper to highly sophisticated technology solutions.  

A lean data approach that uses the right tools can help address these issues.

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Who Benefits from Lean Data Insights?

Data provides insights on a broad level, granting us a glimpse into the full scope of our impact. Data aggregation -- compiling data from different sources -- is a key component of the data management process and is often where organizations have a lot of difficulties. A lean data approach can help ease some of those difficulties.

Here are a few examples of organizations that require data aggregation:

    • Large & Medium-Sized Foundations aggregating social impact for grantee programs and project impact
    • Collective impact initiatives
    • Shared business initiatives
    • Funders in cross-sector aggregation such as Microfinance, Affordable Housing, Education
    • Data & Social Impact gathering for CDFI funders, micro-lending data aggregation programs such as FIELD
    • Impact Investments
    • Impact First - Impact Funds
    • Universities supported social enterprise accelerators
    • Non-profits and businesses interested in aggregating program impact on raising impact funds

Whichever your organizational type, refining the impact data management process will ultimately help you better achieve your organizational goals.

With all the unique needs out there, the sector is moving relatively slowly in innovating its practices. But there is a change to celebrate.

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Emerging Impact Management Tools for Lean Data Collection and Analysis

Fortunately, there is a revolution underway in cloud-based applications that enhances the data capacity of the social sector with hundreds of service-oriented solutions available at significantly lower costs compared to traditional IT applications.

This trend especially benefits resource-constrained organizations such as small to medium-sized nonprofits and social enterprises.

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These tools also have a significant advantage over MS-Excel, which has huge limitations in data tracking and lean data management, particularly with challenges facing accuracy and audit ability of data in high quantities. 

There are many commercial collection tools like Commcare, TaroWorks, etc. which are used widely. While these tools have become affordable, they also need to become much easier to use.

AirTable, for example, is a cloud-based online database tool that provides powerful, yet simple app development that any non-IT person with basic MS-Excel skills can use.

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Within hours, users can easily build applications to manage beneficiaries and program outcomes. For example, at Sopact we worked with a nonprofit that has more than 15 different program objectives and we were able to build an individual beneficiary and program management system within days. 

More importantly, this tool can serve as a quick data collection system through mobile and online forms. Basic volunteer & donation management are now part of a system that everyone could start using from day one. Each organization can summarize year-end outcome data and send it to the parent organization for a better social impact demonstration and reporting.

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If the organization grows further, all the development done in-house can serve as a baseline for a matured IT application. 

Some more examples are SmartSheet for project management, Silk for visualization and social media story building,, Looker,, etc. SMS and ODK based technologies have perhaps played a major role in reducing the data collection cost. 

I am just mentioning these few as a representation of the hundreds that can be found out there.

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Lean Data Democratization

This tremendous democratization of tools allows many organizations to build their internal IT capacity without significant investment. More importantly, these tools grant the organization immediate access to the information that can be used to improve their performance and communicate results to funders.

Once the right tools are identified, the organization’s ability to track, collaborate and share outcome data becomes higher.

The new-age solution like Impact Cloud can complete the lean data collection cycle with a clean, constant, and integrated data pipeline.

Curious to learn more about data collection and using technology to solve the challenges?


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Hetal Sheth

The founder of Ektta, and co-founder of SoPact, Hetal holds a deep passion for establishing enduring impact management practices in the social sector to have built-in learning and accountability.