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“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where…”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
We find ourselves today in a world awash with data. In 2012, every day 2.5 quintillion bytes of data were created. To provide some perspective, a stack of $100 bills one meter high would contain about one million dollars. A stack of $100 bills equaling $2.5 quintillion dollars would stretch from the Earth all the way to Saturn and then back again.
We also find ourselves in a world fascinated with data. Increasingly, our decisions need to be “data driven” and our practices “evidence based.” This seems particularly true for social entrepreneurs and other actors striving to tackle large-scale societal and environmental challenges. There is a strong incentive—and, admittedly, one reinforced by funders—for social entrepreneurs to generate and amass data related to their social change efforts.
It is common for an organization to feel overwhelmed by its own data: how to collect it, how to store it, and—most of all—how to use it. All the data in the world is worthless until you make use of it. To do that, you have to make sure you are asking the right questions of your data.
To start, here are few good questions that many of us are already familiar with:
- What did you do? Or, in evaluation jargon, what were your outputs? What services, products, platforms, or programs did you create?
- What difference did it make? Or, what were your outcomes? What were the nearer-term and longer-term benefits—to individuals, policies, or systems—from the services, products, platforms, or programs you created?
- How well did you do it? How much time, money, and energy went into generating those outputs and outcomes? Could it have been done more efficiently or effectively?
And here are some more great questions that do not get asked enough:
1. What else is going on around your efforts?
The world is a complicated and complex place. Any one theory of change is inevitably nested within a web of hundreds of different actors working on the same issues. This means that we all need to be more comfortable with talking about how our efforts contribute to desired impacts, as it can be impossible to attribute to those changes to one particular intervention. This also means that your success could depend on effective environmental scanning, identifying important trends or developments in the ecosystem around your efforts.
2. What are the implications for your strategy?
If the world around your efforts is in a state of constant flux, it follows that your strategies can never be fixed. Your strategies will need to constantly evolve and your data can help inform the direction. The best social entrepreneurs are always tweaking their business models. The Skoll Centre’s Pamela Hartigan, in an interview last month, offered: “Social entrepreneurs have to be crazy and unreasonable, and the successful ones are incredibly stubborn and they know how to ‘read the signs’. They know when they need to change their business model. They are flexible enough to know when it works and when it doesn’t, and how they need to tweak it.
3. Will this work? Or maybe this?
Constant evolution can be a risky business. The savviest of social entrepreneurs engage not only their data, but even their data collection methodologies, to help mitigate those risks. Micro-experiments or trials can allow you to test drive new ideas before fully committing. One Acre Fund, which works with subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, regularly enhances its program model through trials to test different crops, fertilizers, and training interventions.
Data can tell you anything – or nothing at all. To quote the Cheshire Cat, it depends a good deal on where you want to get to. In other words, it depends a good deal on which questions you are asking.