Sharing Data For all the World to See11 Feb 2014
In the early 1990s, I was in Namaqualand, a beautiful part of South Africa, working for a local nonprofit organization focused on improving child growth. Our efforts combined interventions in water supply, sanitation, hygiene, agriculture, and micronutrients. Residents from the village would weigh children every month and track their growth over time. The data were compelling, but the results always led to great debates about what to do with the findings.
One evening at a meeting with the local residents, we shared the results of our programs. An elderly man named Clemmie stood up. He was upset because he didn’t understand what the data meant. They were just numbers to him. Clemmie believed he could play a greater role in improving results but that he would never be able to help if we kept throwing around confusing numbers without explanation. Surely there was a way to make sense of all the data so everyone could actively participate.
It was a brilliant critique of our work and fundamentally changed the way I think about monitoring and transparency.
Open data and transparency can make a significant difference in the success of an organization. Sharing meaningful data and collecting feedback strengthen the work and the long-term impact, allowing organizations to address what is working and what is not and making them agile and able to correct course early on. In Namaqualand, we changed the way we presented our findings. Once Clemmie understood the data we had collected, he made a color-coded billboard to illustrate the growth of local children. It was regularly updated, and residents could easily see if goals were being met.
As simple as that may sound, as a result, both the nonprofit and the community members were better able to analyze their work—making changes to the program where needed and intervening when a child was clearly struggling. Over time, as we became better at singling out the most vulnerable, child growth improved.
This example illustrates one benefit of sharing information in a meaningful way: It elicits feedback from everybody who has a stake in the outcome, lures unusual allies to come together to solve problems, and enables action. Data then become a tool to measure progress and adjust for improvements.
Companies do this all the time. In the for-profit world, customer feedback drives business development and innovation—think Amazon.com and Yelp. Companies that neglect customer feedback often stagnate and shrivel over time.
Unfortunately, this hunger for customer feedback hasn’t caught on in the nonprofit world.
Many nonprofits say monitoring is too burdensome and expensive and that donors won’t pay for this longer-term view of results. They say monitoring is the government’s responsibility, not theirs. These excuses have little merit in 2014. While monitoring has historically been difficult, technology and the proliferation of cellphones have made it far easier and less expensive. And indeed, nonprofits have found ways to pay for monitoring—whether by a donor or just building it into the budget. Governments, too, have responsibility for monitoring, but it’s not an “either-or” proposition.
Openly reflecting on the results of monitoring should be part of an organization’s DNA, particularly if it is engaging in people’s lives, accepting philanthropic or aid financing, and making dramatic claims of transformative impact (like “$25 saves a life”). It is essential to look back, understand what actually has been done, learn, and pivot to improve. Those who hide behind excuses are operating blindly. They intervene in people’s lives but lack the courage or conviction to return, learn what worked and what didn’t, and adjust for better results. Such a developmental approach has never been valid and should no longer be tolerated by donors.
The benefit of rigorous monitoring, reflection, and subsequent adjustments in a nonprofit’s work are worth the effort.
Take, for example, the One Acre Fund, which helps farmers in poor countries increase their incomes. One Acre Fund integrates monitoring into its work so it can constantly improve its support, services, and products to farmers. One Acre Fund receives continuous feedback from agricultural-extension officers who work directly with farmers and who are not afraid to ask hard questions about impact.
As such, One Acre Fund is constantly improving. This emphasis on monitoring over time enabled One Acre Fund to predict a maize virus in Kenya that required farmers to diversify immediately, helping them shift crops and thrive while others, in distant regions of Kenya, watched in horror as their crops withered.
Splash, a nonprofit organization working to improve the water supply in orphanages around the world, has dramatically improved its services and technologies based on continuous reflection and feedback from the people it works with, leading to orphanages with children who have never tasted a drop of dirty water, ever. The organization tracks water quality, usage, and availability using meters and workers on the ground. And Splash is not afraid when challenges emerge: It sees challenges as an opportunity to make necessary changes.
These nonprofits have not “solved” the problems they are tackling. But they are nimble and responsive to feedback from those they serve. Their programs change easily because monitoring is not an add-on but rather essential to their work. And they move forward forcefully, sketching out pathways toward dramatic results, like water that continues to flow long after an NGO leaves a community.
In recent years we have seen more organizations monitoring programs and collecting data, but even those that do don’t always share it—at least not in a way that is helpful. Some try to show transparency by issuing reports about failed programs, but that only reveals part of the story. Others share all of their data indiscriminately, without context or analysis.
I would much rather see organizations suggest what the data say—what is working and what is not—and then allow people to reflect on that information with such an analysis in mind.
Water For People, the nonprofit organization of which I am CEO, launched a different platform that focuses on making the data and insights usable to government officials, staff, and even communities. We call it Re-Imagine Reporting, and it was inspired by the lessons I originally learned from Clemmie.
Re-Imagine Reporting provides an interactive, visually compelling way for donors, stakeholders, and the public to understand our progress and outcomes while also allowing for analysis and review.
Before developing the platform, we spent a year speaking with staff members, local businesses, and local government agencies to determine how they learn. Not surprisingly, no one said they learn best by reading the long, dry documents that are the basis of philanthropic reporting.
We shifted, as Clemmie inspired us to, from written reports to a more intuitive, visually powerful reflection of data. And we’ve seen people respond—across continents—to intuitive visualizations of data linked to goals, combined with information about finance (what it costs to do this and how the money is allocated) and stories that help make sense of the work. Re-Imagine Reporting does all this and is working as a tool for improvement. In being open about what we are doing and creating the conditions for feedback, we believe we will become a better organization with the ability to affect real and lasting change.
Today’s challenges demand that nonprofits monitor their work, be more transparent, and get creative in finding ways of meeting their missions. Nonprofits that resist are missing an important opportunity to learn. And as the landscape makes this inevitable transition, programs will improve and achieve greater impact—not temporarily but forever.
Clemmie would be pleased.