At Heron we take both mission return and financial return into consideration in all our investments, which poses some challenges. Data measuring social return is neither standardized nor commonly collected in the way financial return is for most enterprises. Collecting and tracking this data is complicated and expensive in current practice, and there are few “comparable” data sets for many enterprise types.
Recognizing a growing need for better market and enterprise level data as well as for real time, responsive, uncensored data on impact, the F.B. Heron Foundation hosted a retreat on the “Power of Information” in July 2013, which brought together a select group of leaders in foundation, government and business, focused on information and technology. The retreat was conceived as a way to explore the innovative information tools available today, and how these tools could be used by foundations, investors, and enterprises—for-profit or nonprofit—to surface data capable of informing decision making and ideally improving social and financial outcomes, helping us and others invest successfully with integrity and rigor. We continue looking for some common and relatively simple ways to measure and improve two things: 1) enterprises’ social and financial performance over time and 2) enterprises’ social and financial impact on society, also over time.
This enterprise-level data offers us an “investor’s eye view” into an individual organization’s performance, and a broader view into an industry peer group’s financial and economic activity. To this end, we looked for help in answering the following questions over the course of the retreat:
From Amanda Kahlow of 6Sense Insights, we learned that raw data may be key to developing intel, if we had better access to it, and that we need to strive to make that happen. We learned that transaction data and sentiment are different animals, we need to layer qualitative and quantitative data with the meta-data framework.
We learned from Liz Luckett of Pershing Square Foundation that we need to not get lost in Big Data. That small data can present meaningful steps forward, and that from small data we can begin to create a baseline, from which impact can be measured. That maintaining mission control, in an enterprise way, has to be contemplated at the outset. We can’t wait until we exit an enterprise to address those concerns.
We learned from Sarah Zampardo of Applied Predictive Technologies that for the impact we seek, perhaps we need to marry some of the technologies in the room, to build a model that allows us to look at the behavior of enterprises, three months, six months, nine months, in advance of staffing up with jobs, and then we need to look at who they hire? What was the longitudinal effect of success at that enterprise? For us at Heron, that might be an interesting model. Sarah also really drove home for us that correlation cannot and should not be conflated with causation, and offered insights on how to use experimentation instead within real-world constraints and considerations.
We learned from David Henderson that we cannot and should not separate impact value from enterprise value. We need to use a carefully contemplated utility framework to decide how we value data points, and to be thoughtful about perverse incentives and negative unintended consequences of our decisions. In other words, we can’t take action from data alone; rather we need to take actioninformed by data, properly contextualized.
Elizabeth Dreicer of Kuity affirmed for us that we need to use data to inform an optimized perspective of what the best thing to do is for the social circumstances we face. We learned from Mauricio Lim Miller that we need experts to stop visiting advice on beneficiaries and from David Rabjohns that really all good social data exists in forums, anyway. We learned from Richard Ling ways that for-profit data analysis can be adapted for nonprofit fundraising.
Catherine Havasi of Luminoso, Bill Wilkie of Stori, and David Rabjohns of MotiveQuest helped us understand that the social age has really democratized information, across the planet and across socio-economic strata. We need to move beyond sentiment and really zero in on what drives people to action, and really understand what makes meaning for people. Data needs people to move it to action, and we need people who want to be a part of our poverty-alleviation tribe.
Diego May of Junar, Raphael Majma from the White House Office of Science and Technology and Jason Payne of Palantir rounded it out for us under the expert guidance of NYU’s Paul Light, with a great discussion on the importance of opening and analyzing disparate data, and how to do it in ways that protects personal privacy and prevents illicit or exploitational use.
We will continue to learn and share knowledge and perspectives to provide new thinking on how we might achieve our aims—starting by sharing the Power of Information videos. We hope you find them as helpful as we did, and look forward to learning more.
Read more reflections from Heronites on aspects of our work and many of the reasons we do it.