I started my social impact career at the age of 21, and for 7 years I worked on the frontlines as a mental health clinician, substance abuse counselor, and case manager for the homeless. While serving as a case manager, I had a transformational moment. I was invited to a community meeting where the issue of how to count the homeless was being discussed. During the meeting, I was struck by the power of data. I saw how local leaders literally changed their thinking, decisions and subsequent actions as a result of reviewing research findings. This experience, along with a lifetime love of data shaped the focus of the next leg of my impact career journey on becoming an applied researcher.
Fast forward 20 years. I have evaluated numerous social programs and grantmaker initiatives for some of the largest grantmakers and nonprofit organizations in the world. Even though I was using the methods and tools of research I learned in grad school, I also leveraged my years as a practitioner to become a program evaluator who practices stakeholder participation and engagement in the process. And, like so many other evaluators out there, I hold true to the belief that the practice of evaluation makes a significant difference.
That said, I have reached another turning point in my journey, sparked by my younger frontline social worker self, whose voice has begun getting louder and louder, provoking me to answer the following question: “For whom are you making a difference? How are you helping me and my fellow providers, here in the ‘real,’ everyday, local, community-based trenches? And, even more importantly, how are you directly helping those I serve?” Ouch!
Who Really Has Access to the Power of Impact Measurement?
These nagging questions have shifted my lens toward the question of who really has access to the power of impact measurement. And, now, is there even more we can do to make it available to everyone, including the beneficiary, rather than leaving folks even further behind?
It’s time to change our perspective. If we really believe in the value of impact measurement, then everyone deserves to have access to it. We need to begin focusing on the barriers facing the WHOLE sector when it comes to accessing the power of data. Right now, the top 3-5% of all nonprofits, and the top 3-5% of all philanthropic institutions, are the typical “haves” group when it comes to impact measurement. These are the impact organizations that can afford to invest in impact measurement without raising the eyebrows of their donors, stakeholders and constituents if they divert much needed resources to anything but direct service. (Of course I would argue that any good impact measurement investment should directly improve direct services.)
Impact measurement opportunities, experiments and innovations are not getting to the “have-nots,” or what I am calling, the “95%’ers.” For them, their experience with being able to do “good” impact measurement, let alone engaging in the cutting-edge practices, is analogous to someone suffering from cancer who reads an article in Discover Magazine and learns about a scientific experiment that found a cure. The reader knows, “it will help many with my type of cancer, but only some day, after experts approve it for use for everyone. I am glad for them. But, what about me, right now?” Okay, a bit extreme, but analogously accurate.
What would happen if all impact organizations had access to the power of impact measurement? One thing I am certain of: the social solutions we could learn about from the other 95% would be amazing! Recently my partners and I formed a new company, Algorhythm, to begin addressing this issue. We are betting that armed with a growth mindset, a willingness to make mistakes, and a laser-beam focus on serving the frontlines, we could move forward with a bold and audacious solution that could disrupt the current impact measurement economy by making impact measurement accessible to everyone.
It’s Time to Create a Shared Impact Measurement Economy
It’s time we try on for size the relatively new and disruptive business model of a company like Uber, the ridesharing business. OK, I know they are facing serious challenges, but almost all the fuss is from existing industry insiders – the “haves” – whose business models are the ones being “disrupted”. The core engine behind a business like Uber is turning anyone, anywhere into a professional driver, by leveraging networking technology, data and a shared learning platform to help each driver manage what to date was a very costly and complicated business that required so many steps, processes, procedures and insider access to run. They have taken the complexities and cost out of the taxi and limousine business by letting technology do a lot of the heavy lifting, which reduces the cost for consumers and allows more consumers to enjoy the service. It is now possible to do the same thing with the business of impact measurement.
At Algorhythm, we have developed a shared technology platform that significantly removes most of the complexities of impact measurement – i.e., provides a set of research-based valid and reliable metrics from which to choose, runs comparison group studies, provides different types and formats of beneficiary data collection technologies, runs statistical modeling and complex analytics, and creates reports and filterable views. And, our technology platform allows any impact organization to be empowered by these more complex impact measurement processes and functions, at a fraction of the current cost. The most often-cited impact measurement writing about the group of impact measurement “haves” states that an organization should invest anywhere between 5% and 10% of their expense budget toward evaluation.
“Our opinion drawn from experience is that most organizations should budget from 5% to 10% of the organization budget for evaluation costs. There are a variety of factors that can affect cost, but in general, this budget range suffices.”
State of Evaluation 2012: Evaluation Practice and Capacity in the Nonprofit Sector, Innovation Network, Inc.
Algorhythm has created impact learning systems, or iLearning Systems, that deliver real-time key insights to all organizational stakeholders, including and most importantly the frontlines, at a very low cost. In fact, most can get started for between $500 and $1,500, and almost any organization can get started for no more than 1% a PROGRAM’s budget, NOT 5-10% of their ORGANIZATION’s budget. Our goal is to provide this technology solution to help seed a shared impact measurement economy, providing a much lower cost option for all impact organizations to run their own internal impact measurement businesses, including engaging and partnering with evaluators, technical support providers, capacity builders and experts who can help them take their findings even further.
It’s time to provide every impact organization with access to the power of impact measurement. The potential for learning through a crowd-sourced and crowd-accessed ever-growing field-specific shared learning system could be a game changer in the social sector in ways we have yet to imagine. It will take a lot more than a technology innovation to get us there. As the new world of “shared economies” is proving, only by partnering technology with people where everyone benefits can we scale change in ways that will disrupt the current slow pace of moving the needle on social impact.
This spring, Algorhythm is beta launching our first iLearning System in the field of youth development. Our audacious goal is to create the largest ever shared measurement community, with hundreds and eventually thousands of organizations participating on a yearly basis.