Thursday
February 25
2016

Unmesh Sheth

Building a Collaborative Social Impact Measurement Operating System

In my first article I discussed the need to establish a common measurement context among funders and program agencies. Assuming that funders such as international aid agencies, foundations, impact funds and corporate social responsibility managers have the right metrics established, with a proper context, the next challenge is developing a system to transmit the data from program agencies (investees, grantees and public agencies) to funders.

Developing a shared measurement system is essential to collective impact. Agreement on a common agenda is illusory without agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported.“

–       Kania, J. & Kramer, M. (“Collective Impact”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2011.)

To better understand this challenge, take the example of an affordable housing program that I referred to in the previous article.

From my perspective, affordable housing is the next frontier in social business right after the rise of microfinance. While hundreds of initiatives worldwide support housing for economically disadvantaged communities, sadly most of them lack a sustainable business model and social impact evidence, which are keys to attract a larger chunk of impact capital.

Historically, these programs have been funded by agencies like Housing and Urban Development (in the U.S.), private equity funds, community foundations and specialized agencies such as Habitat for Humanity. One of the initiatives ahead of the curve is called HomeKeeper, a system created by Cornerstone Partnerships (a program of Capital Impact Partners) with the support of Ford Foundation, which I mentioned in the first post.

HomeKeeper embodies performance management for the whole affordable housing sector. In February of 2013, the company developed a Salesforce-based system that helps manage the most common tasks when running affordable housing programs, such as application, credit evaluation and service. Currently, the system is being used by 60 to 70 affordable housing communities across the U.S. HomeKeeper has developed a series of metrics for property, demographic data, affordability, community investment, resale performance, and security and mobility. Staffers regularly aggregate data from individual programs – providing strong impact evidence to future investors. Also, affordable community partners can compare their results to specific partners within a region or state. This comparison often gives valuable insights on the best practices among similar partners.

Challenges with Partners’ Data Aggregation

Although HomeKeeper is a good example of a go-to solution for collecting and aggregating the data, applying it to other organizations might be neither feasible nor practical. In terms of feasibility, the overall cost of building an application like that can be significantly high. In terms of practicality, we can find small to significant variations in the partners’ outputs within a program, depending on the funder’s objectives. For collective impact, the flexibility and affordability of the data collection is more important than building an enterprise-ready solution.

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 like a “hardware bus.” Before I get into detail, let me clarify that we are not talking about massive funding to build such an operating system; quite the contrary, we need to take advantage of affordable technology that already exists today.

The social impact operating system would dramatically reduce time and cost on managing different activities that are key to program agencies, such as beneficiary management, program outcome management and project management (including financial and human resources). Agencies do have an important function in grants and donations management, but these are mainly relevant to their internal needs.

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?

Conclusion

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.

http://nextbillion.net/authors/unmesh-sheth/

Categories
Impact Assessment
Tags
Impact Assessment, impact investing, metrics, nonprofit, technology