Building a Collaborative Social Impact Assessment Operating System
March 1, 2016
Aggregation of metrics data is rarely discussed. In trying to further understand it, I have talked to several managers of UN-funded initiatives, foundations and impact funds. In most cases, even if they were successful in establishing metrics and receiving data back from the partners, most data collection was done using Excel forms, which complicated the slicing and dicing of the data by partners and by programs.
To fill this gap, some organizations decided to build custom applications with a rather large budget and a long implementation timetable. A few succeeded, but this solution is rarely scalable to other organizations.
Instead, we envision a new social impact operating system ready to plug-and-play. The revolution in cloud-based applications is providing the social sector with hundreds of service-oriented solutions available at significantly lower cost compared to traditional IT applications. This trend specially benefits resource-constrained organizations, such as small to midsize nonprofits and social enterprises. These tools also have a significant advantage over an Excel spreadsheet, which has huge limitations in data tracking and data management in terms of the expected level of accuracy and auditing requirements.
Airtable, for example, is a cloud-based database tool that provides powerful yet simple app development that any non-IT person with basic Excel skills can use. Within hours, users can easily build applications to manage beneficiaries and program outcomes. More importantly, this tool can serve as a quick data collection system through mobile and online forms.
If the organization grows further, all the development done in-house can serve as a foundation for a mature IT application. For example, for the organization, Friends Of the Future, which has more than 15 different program objectives, we were able to build an individual beneficiary and program management system within days. Each organization can summarize year-end outcome data and send it to the parent organization for a better social impact demonstration and reporting.
Another example can be found in SmartSheet for project management, Silk for visualization and social media story building, Plot.ly, Looker, Import.io, , etc. I am just mentioning these few as a representation of the hundreds that can be found out there.
More important than the cost savings, these tools grant the organization immediate access to information that can be used to improve performance and communicate results to the funders.
In the face of this trend, funders and data aggregators must become smarter about new technologies, in order to get more auditable data from program agencies. On the other hand, social sector media like NextBillion.net, Stanford Social Innovation Review and data evangelist organizations like DataKind and Data Analysts For Social Good should become champions to educate the sector on better uses/deployment of technology. New technology solutions have the potential to disrupt, but they require a whole new way of thinking to see that disruption emerge.
Platforms like Salesforce will remain suitable for midsize or large nonprofits with sufficient funding. According to the Urban Institute, in the U.S. alone there are more than 1.6 million nonprofits, but there have only been 30,000 Salesforce nonprofit installations (as per the 2015 Salesforce Dreamforce conference). So our challenge is how do we help 1.57 million and other similar worldwide social sector organizations, which are still struggling to build viable beneficiary data collection tools and meaningful metrics, to measure their impact?
If social sector organizations truly want to compete against the large corporations, they must build an efficient performance management system where even the small organization can derive value and understand its limitations. Even the funders must understand the aggregated value that they are creating year after year to achieve social impact. Unless we make the process of collecting, sharing and analyzing data accessible and easy for all, we will not be able to build an efficient social sector.
Unmesh is the founder of the SoPact. SoPact is a personal vision that grew from 30 years of experience in technology, management, and the social sector.