Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Continuous Improvement for Change

"They [foundations] should be standing up for a robust and meaningful data collection to help the sector advance the causes of racial and ethnic equity and justice."

Rick Cohen, "Understanding AB 624," Measuring What We Value, Vol 1, 2008, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.

The occasion for this collection of articles is the debate over California legislation, AB 624, which would require major foundations to report on the race and ethnicity of board members, staff, and grantees. The legislation grew out of the work of the Greenlining Institute.

AB 624 has stirred up a hornet's nest that may overshadow the concern posed by Rick Cohen about "meaningful data collection." This is a key issue for the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors that goes beyond questions of diversity to questions of impact. In general, I have found a lack of "robust" measures of change and a complementary lack of investment in the capacity to collect and use data.

Time and again, even from the high performing nonprofits, I hear the complaint: "Why do I have to collect these data?" Or the statement: "We're only doing this because the funder requires it."

There's a lot of wrongheaded data collection, mandatory reports, and fuzzy indicators. But I am of the firm belief that we can't make much progress on solving difficult, messy, or wicked social problems without a commitment to some form of continuous improvement -- the incremental process of doing better by examining -- on a regular basis -- our progress or lack thereof.

And at some point the progress of individual organizations needs to be benchmarked against the progress of like organizations trying out similar strategies and investments.

We have a dilemma: mandatory means unfair compliance; voluntary means lackluster commitment. How should the nonprofit sector support "meaningful data collection?"


Josh said...

In every line of employment I've worked in, from nonprofits to nightclubs and everywhere in between, I've always found that having superior access to information prepared me for success.

In nonprofits I found this to be especially true when dealing with maximizing the efficiency of advocacy emails. By making slight adjustments to your work, subject line, time of send, etc., you can see huge gains in productivity.

Smart individuals in the business and philanthropic worlds are aware of this, it just takes extra time to implement the necessary changes to properly capture and organize data. From my experience it is always worth taking this extra time and effort.

Colin Austin said...

Meaningful data does not necessarily mean more data. The WIA system collects scads of data, but what does it tell us about improving job prospects and creating a better economy? For measuring program results, many organizations would welcome a short list of common indicators.