Sep 26
September 26, 2013

The Myth and Promise of Data for Social Impact


At the Annual Meeting this morning, CGI members participated in a special "Commitment Case Studies" breakout session focused on “The Myth and Promise of Data for Social Impact." These "Case Studies" sessions bring together like-minded members, with topically-aligned interests and Commitments to Action, to join in an interactive community dialogue and leverage their shared insights to maximize the impact of their work.

This particular session focused on how acquiring good data and timely feedback are critical in determining the success of any initiative tackling complex global challenges. Rather than limiting this tool to documenting reach and expenditures, how can organizations advance their utilization of data to set goals and assess outcomes for greatest success?

Helene D. Gayle, the president and CEO of CARE, presented progress of their 2007 Commitment to Action around innovating education for marginalized girls by addressing the underlying causes for their exclusion. Gayle described CARE’s three-pronged approach: inside, outside, and after. Once inside of schools, do children have access to quality curriculum and teachers? Are communities and parents supporting children outside of the classroom? How can relevant after school programs, such as sports and civic engagement, provide youth with critical leadership skills?

While strategic partnerships are critical to the success of the program, the embedding of data and research into program-building from the beginning of these efforts have resulted in more positive, and measurable, outcomes. Utilizing gendered-approaches and creating the right indicators for the context in which CARE is working—including empowerment and educational attainment, not just counting the number of books—has allowed CARE to implement a successful model that can be scaled and replicated.

Gabi Zedlmayer, the vice president of sustainability and social innovation at Hewlett-Packard, shared their 2011 Commitment to Action with mothers2mothers. Focused on preventing the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies in sub-Saharan Africa through mentorship, where 95 percent of HIV-positive mothers reside, mentors help these women fight the stigma of HIV within their communities and with their husbands, while assisting them with the management of their treatment and motherhood.

The report-backs and data collection from these mentors on the ground are manual and paper-based—sometimes recorded outside with a notepad or in a hospital—allowing for the loss of good data, time, and efficiency. HP challenged volunteers from their South Africa office to create a locally-relevant solution, resulting in a database in which data input occurs only once; can be accessed more widely, securely, and immediately; and ensures more accurate inputs. The program has established multiple touch points in the organization for knowledge sharing, has created milestones and accountability for the program, and is scaling to additional sites. Zedlmayer stated that the world is at an “inflection point” in regards to the way that big data and software can achieve social impact.

The floor then opened to include the audience—providing them with the opportunity to react, pose questions to one another, and challenge perspectives voiced in the room. Some key concepts are below, with dialogues continuing beyond the Annual Meeting in the ongoing work of members.

  • How nonprofits in particular can harness the knowledge and expertise of universities, and examples of member efforts underway that are utilizing these partnerships
  • How to balance the investment in technologies to improve accuracy of data with providing direct services, as well as with accountability to the public and funders
  • How resource-constrained NGOs can benefit from the cost-savings associated with cloud-based applications and new technologies, potentially stewarded by youth who then gain essential ICT skills
  • How to recognize the clear distinction between the ways that nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and corporate social responsibility programs use data
  • How to identify between different types of data, and establishing clear objectives for how it will help to measure identified outcomes
  • How good indicators allow us to learn from what failed, not just producing static outcomes in the form of numbers and percentages

Watch the full session on CGI’s Livestream channel.