Do you believe in data?

For years we’ve heard about big data affecting the way we do business. Proven successful in the corporate world, it has started to impact social change organizations, yet most don’t know where to start. Recent Stanford Social Innovation Review and HBR articles provide a primer for social change organizations.

SSIR refers to “the growing proliferation of data and our increasing ability to make productive use of it.” Many organizations — impact or not — don’t realize the sheer volume of primary data at their disposal. Most social change organizations use some data, but it is often incomplete, which underscores their biggest challenges:

  1. Having a culture and mindset of data use.
  2. Having staff who can make data usable.
  3. Serving “multiple masters.”

Serving multiple masters differentiates impact organizations from traditional corporations. Fruchterman writes:

“Unlike the for-profit sector, where the metrics are straightforward and focused on profit, the social sector reports to multiple masters — the community being served, staff, donors, and policymakers. Nonprofits and social businesses must be able not just to show what they do, but also to demonstrate the impact of what they do in terms of multiple bottom lines including financial, social, and environmental. Because of the complexity of doing this, most social sector staff and managers struggle with data: getting it, using it correctly, and maintaining privacy.”

It’s easy to dismiss data as incompatible with social change, but that mindset will undermine your mission. We assume causal results, but without data, how can we prove that any initiative made an impact? How can we claim that we’ve bettered the world without real proof?

The answer is by adopting a culture of data and hiring the right people to interpret it. Systemic shifts are never easy, but with data, social change organizations can better determine impact and efficacy and adjust accordingly. If data shows no correlation between initiatives and progress, why should they continue? Scarce resources would be better allocated elsewhere.

Data also shows trends that we didn’t know otherwise existed. Without knowing trends and correlations, programs would be designed in a vacuum. Effective data enables you to get to the root cause of the challenges you are trying to solve. By better identifying correlations, asking the correct questions and aligning measurement with impact, social change organizations can better change the world.

Organizations that adopt a culture of data should be prepared for a learning curve. Data does not have a universal format, so plenty of it is unusable, and organizations don’t always share their data. Embrace and lean into these challenges, though, and your rewards will be immense.