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Friday, May 31, 2019

Donors, Data, & Decision Making: 5 Tips for Embracing Research & Development to Drive Impact


This guest post was contributed by Kelly Fitzsimmons, Founder and Managing Partner, of Project Evident. Kelly and her team are committed to working with funders and the organizations they support to strengthen their data and evidence-building agendas to make a greater impact in the world through more effective programs.

In the private sector, as the pace of innovation has accelerated, so too has the use of data to drive decision-making. The for-profit sector has long embraced technology and tools to capture and use data to better serve their customers. Less so in the social sector, where such tools, talent, and technology have largely not made it into the hands of practitioners (a "last mile problem"). At the same time, there is increasing demand for programs that produce real outcomes for communities, yet many of these programs do not have access to the resources needed to research and develop those outcomes.  

Individual donors are a powerful force for promoting better research and development, or R&D, practices and ensuring that the social sector is not left behind in our rapidly evolving world. As you think about your next charitable contributions or your role as a board member with a nonprofit organization, here are five tips to help close this critical gap for those causes you care most about.

1. Get Curious
You occupy a unique perch in the social sector. The questions you ask, especially about innovation and outcomes, can drive real change. You can send a powerful message that impact, along with efficiently-run organizations, are a powerful combination. Asking questions about how the organizations you give to innovate, conduct research and learn can shift the dialogue. R&D doesn’t just belong in the hands of researchers or the government, it’s for all of us. The more we engage in a dialogue of learning, the better we can align the right resources and talent with those who are solving the problems we care about most. Social sector innovation begins with curiosity, and donors have a big role to play. 

2. Invest in Learning 
Most innovative businesses invest 10-14% in R&D and consider these efforts a core part of staying relevant with their customers. In the social sector, we don’t yet have that equivalent practice. Instead, we seem to want outcomes for communities without investing in R&D. Outcomes don’t build themselves. Organizations need flexible, unrestricted donations combined with the recognition that R&D—a disciplined process for learning, testing and improving—is a must have for building evidence. For healthy charities to sustain themselves and serve their beneficiaries well, R&D must be understood as a core function. It is not overhead or a “nice to have.” Flexible funding can be a game-changer for organizations who are hungry to learn how to increase and improve their impact. 

3. Promote Continuous Practice
Too often the social sector has relied on a “one study at a time” approach to building evidence. Generally, this approach is sporadic, expensive, driven by third-party interest and not grounded in the day-to-day needs of organizations. A continuous process—integrated with decision making and operations and connected to learning and strategic goals—will drive better quality and impact over time. We aren’t used to product development or quality improvement cycles as everyday work in the social sector and we should be. Can you imagine if Apple or Android only conducted tests every 3 or 4 years and if those tests took another 3 or 4 years to generate results? Consider becoming a steward for continuous evidence building. Ask the organizations you support how they improve, learn and generate evidence demonstrating their effectiveness, and what’s standing in the way of continuous practice. 

4. Say What? Don’t Let Language Be the Barrier 
The language of R&D and evidence building can be confusing, overly academic and sometimes overwhelming. Don’t be put off. Instead, stay centered on outcomes and whether they are being delivered as intended. Ask the organizations you support what programs are working, for whom, and where? How do they know they’re working? Where are the bright spots and the challenges? What’s changing and how are they adjusting to better meet the needs of those they serve? Starting with these key questions is a simple and powerful way to learn fast about what matters most.

5. Be Realistic
There are many well-intended organizations, who are “constructively dissatisfied” with the programs they offer and are committed to improvement on behalf of those they serve and those who fund them. Often, these organizations are pursuing stronger outcomes which require iteration, failure, and learning. At the same time, these organizations must fundraise, which is challenging as funding dynamics don't always allow room for learning, improvement, and evidence building. As you think about your donations or your board role, consider the importance of creating space and time for R&D work and being realistic about what it takes. Explore what it will take for your causes to strengthen their impact. This conversation will go a long way to driving much-needed change for organizations and for the sector—and to improving outcomes for the communities we care about. 

At Project Evident, we believe there are a special place and urgent need for donors who care about impact to bridge the R&D gap faster. You are uniquely positioned to help organizations continue to innovate and adapt to the evolving needs of their communities with outcomes-based solutions. Leading this change requires donors to have a clear-eyed commitment to learning and alignment with the organizations they fund. We at Project Evident look forward to exploring the special role of the donor in learning and R&D alongside you and Charity Navigator. 

For more on Project Evident, please visit www.projectevident.org.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

It was a good initiative from your side. Thanks for sharing the valuable tips.