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Doing Good With Data

by: Sithu Thein Swe, June 1, 2015

As we enter into the thick of conference season, I want to share my recent experience at a pretty unique and relatively new conference: Do Good Data 2015.

In just its second year, the conference brought 600+ data geeks from across the country (and even other countries) to Chicago — quadrupling the size of its first conference. There were opportunities to connect with like-minded do-gooders, the keynote speakers were inspiring, and workshops helped build practical knowledge and skills. Topics covered included program development, data visualization, evaluation, marketing and fundraising, and even machine learning.

Having spent some time post-conference “digesting” and sharing learnings with the Blue Garnet team, here are the highlights from the conference that resonated most with me:

  1. Ned Breslin speaking honestly about Water for People’s progress and hiccups in their pursuit of impact
  2. Michael Weinstein sharing the Robin Hood Foundation’s rigorous monetization approach to grantmaking
  3. Dean Karlan discussing the role of randomized control trials in today’s social sector landscape

1. Fearless honesty as a nonprofit

It is easy for an organization to feature anecdotes of success and suggest they are representative of all the work they do (regardless of how accurate this may be). But how often do organizations call attention to failures and shortcomings as part of a commitment to transparency and improvement?

The latter approach takes courage and leadership, and is exemplified by Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People. He spoke about the “fearless honesty” necessary to understanding progress (and hiccups) towards impact. Rigorous monitoring helps them to constantly learn what’s working, what isn’t, and how to improve. For them, this commitment to fearless honesty entailed developing open-source technology, setting expectations with staff that data and monitoring are everyone’s responsibility, engaging partners, and taking blame for failures. Ned has taken fearless honesty to the extreme by literally stripping down on YouTube to call attention to projects that weren’t working and their commitment to do better.

2. Fearless honesty as a funder

Michael Weinstein shared the Robin Hood Foundation’s approach to philanthropy, which has many parallels to the transparent, data-minded, and bold (yet humble) approach of Water for People. I was impressed to hear about the Foundation’s efforts not to overstate impact by considering counterfactuals and displacement effects to better determine “true impact.” At the end of the day, accountability for funders is usually self-imposed, and the Robin Hood Foundation seems to set the bar high for itself and practice what it preaches.

Naturally, this rigor applies to the Foundation’s funding strategy. They practice “rigorous monetization” to better understand costs and benefits of programs across sectors, and how these programs help the Foundation achieve its intended impact. Their cost/benefit assumptions and calculations are made public; for example, they’ve calculated that the poverty-alleviating benefit of a high school diploma is $120,000 in earnings and $90,000 in health benefits. Michael has admitted they are imperfect—but by making this information open to all, he hopes others can help them become “less wrong.”

Michael and the Robin Hood Foundation’s approach may not be for everyone, but the advice he shared should resonate with funders of all types: “Never, ever make grants on the basis of arithmetic alone.”

3. Measuring what matters with CART

Dean Karlan, a development economist who has helped push the thinking in this field (and greatly influenced my own worldview), was another keynote speaker that left quite an impression. His work exemplifies just how powerful, insightful, and critical randomized control trials can be, as illustrated by a recent study on learning how to help the world’s ultra-poor.

Even though he’s a leading expert in randomized control trials, he recognizes that they aren’t always appropriate. His talk focused on how organizations can build strong data practices and measure what matters most, regardless of organizational size. His suggested “CART” principles are a helpful way of thinking about right-sizing data collection. He suggests we ask: Is the data Credible? Actionable? Responsible? Transportable?

Rather than flesh out each of these CART components here, I’ll refer you to his SSIR blog post for more detail.

We need leaders at every level to support data-organizations

Finally, a theme that emerged across the conference was the critical role of leaders. An organization that embeds data into its DNA doesn’t have all the answers—rather, this practice guarantees that data will surface failures and shortcomings. But that’s what helps organizations understand what does work and what doesn’t.

Staff, executives, and Board leadership need to be comfortable with seeing “bad” information that can help guide improvements. As Ned Breslin noted, this emphasis will in turn attract a different type of individual (and donor) to the organization.

In wrapping up, I want to pose a question:

  • Nonprofit leaders—what can you do to promote a data-hungry, learning culture within your organization?
  • Leading funders—amidst an environment that incentivizes organizations to only show successes, what can funders do to support bold leaders trying to take this data-driven approach?