A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Chicago for two days to take part in the second annual Do Good Data conference, hosted by Data Analysts for Social Good, a learning community for non-profit professionals. The focus of conference was on using data effectively and efficiently. There were 350 people in attendance from a total of 25 different states. It was an energetic crowd and I felt privileged to be there with all of them. Throughout the course of the conference I was able to attend five compelling breakout sessions and hear from five eloquent and renowned keynote speakers. I left the conference feeling informed and inspired.
Andrew Means, the founder of both the conference and the organization rallied the audience during his welcoming remarks. He reminded us that the world is not as it should be and affirmed that all of us have come to this event to learn how to help rectify that fact. He told us to listen to each speaker while thinking about how we can apply the shared knowledge toward our causes. I heeded this advice and thought about how the new ideas, solutions, and challenges posed could be applied toward the goals of afterschool in Vermont.
There are many questions that organizations who are in the business of doing good can ask about data. To start, what should we do with all of it? When we collect data are we able to do so objectively — or do we strive to collect data that matches our biases? How can we share our data with stakeholders without overwhelming them? How can we make the case that the work that we do has some kind of positive impact on society?
I came away from the conference with several main ideas, which I will blog about one at a time for each week in June. The first is:
We can’t fix everything [for youth in Vermont], but let’s focus on what we can do and whom we can best serve.
One of the breakout sessions that I attended was about how to calculate social return on investment (SROI). It was led by Maria Kim and Andrea Cote of the Cara Program, a Chicago-based organization that helps homeless individuals with workforce training and job acquisition. Kim and Cote walked us through a few examples of how to calculate the societal contributions and savings per the cost of investment for a few different example organizations. The arithmetic calculations themselves were not difficult; rather, determining what contributions any organization can take credit for is extremely tricky. Based on what we know about results-based accountability, often many different groups contribute in a variety of ways toward a single result or outcome.
So how can any single organization take credit for a desirable outcome? Let’s take the example of an afterschool program in which kids can play a sport for a few hours each day after school. Research tells us that regular participation in quality afterschool programs can lead to many positive results such as improved grades and attendance. However, can an afterschool basketball program claim complete credit for participating students who’ve experienced these positive improvements? Not really. These students may have already been on track to improve their grades or attendance as a result of many influencing factors. During a panel discussion about the future of the non-profit sector, Jeff Shuck, CEO of Plenty warned us of these “delusions of impact grandeur.” Ok, so what specific societal contributions can an afterschool program such as this one full take credit for? Well, perhaps it is the case that for many of the participants, one or more of their parents are able to acquire and hold a time job as a result of not having to be home for their children at 3 pm. Therefore, one tangible contribution to society would be the income taxes that these employed parents would be able to pay. Of course there would be more, but this relatively easy calculation is what Kim and Cote would refer to as the “low-hanging fruit,” or small outcomes that the program would be able to claim responsibility for and use to go into an SROI calculation. A confident, concrete impact such as this is something that investors like to see.
Try not to become discouraged when trying to think of the monetary societal contributions that your program can directly take credit for. There are other ways besides SROI to show investors and stakeholders that you are doing good work, such as YPQI and program evaluation practices. But to learn more about SROI and getting started with implementing it for your program, check out the SROI Guide, a series of PDFs free for download, here: http://www.thesroinetwork.org/sroi-analysis/the-sroi-guide.
This blog is authored by Vermont Afterschool’s Project Support Specialist and Data Wizard Erin Schwab.