Flipping the script on impact measurement
We live in a data-rich world. Our phones and computers, our Alexa’s and Google Homes know where we are, what we do, and what we like. The internet and mobile revolution have put power in the hands of companies that use information to better understand and serve their customers.
And yet, the business of creating social change—and, more specifically, the work of understanding where social change is and is not happening—has remained nearly untouched by this technology revolution. Data gathering and analysis in impact measurement is primarily done the way it was done 30 years ago: with researchers driving up to people’s homes, knocking on their doors, and sitting in their houses for two hours to learn about their lives. While this is one way to gather rich data, it surely is not the only one available to social businesses today.
Starting in 2013, a group of us at Acumen, the non-profit social impact investor, began to ask ourselves whether we could take advantage of the technology revolution to better understand social impact. Acumen had a long history of progressive approaches to social impact measurement, having helped launch the IRIS standards in impact investing, developing the Best Alternative Charitable Option (BACO) measurement methodology, and creating, with the help of Google and Salesforce, a software platform called PULSE for capturing social, financial and operational data from the companies we invested in.
And yet, despite these well-developed, robust systems, we found that we had poor data. The simple fact is that a budding social enterprise that is aiming to serve a marginalised customer set with a new product or service—such as a solar light, a loan product, or an improved maize seed—is almost always unable to produce meaningful, reliable social impact data. They will know how many lanterns they have sold, how many dollars they have lent, and how much maize they have sold, but won’t know whether their customers have stopped using kerosene, how the money from these loans is being spent, or whether farmers’ incomes and profits are increasing.
Seeing this challenge, we set out to provide a data offer, instead of a data ask, to the companies Acumen invested in. We knew that even the customers Acumen served—many living below the poverty line in far-flung locations—had access to mobile phones, so we began testing whether we could gather high-quality social impact data through remote surveys. We focused on measuring the poverty levels of customers—since a core part of the Acumen thesis is to serve poor customers—by using the developed by the Grameen Foundation. This simple, 10-question survey asks things like how many people live in a home, what the roof is made of, and how much schooling the head of the household has, and from this data gives a probability that the household lives below various poverty lines.
We quickly discovered that we could get the data we’d been looking for quickly and reliably: in just a few weeks, and with a short, simple survey, we learned about customers’ poverty levels. Over time, we developed our own survey modules in energy, financial inclusion, education, agriculture, gender, and workforce development, allowing us for the first time to hear directly from customers about how their lives were, or were not, improving.
We called our approach Lean Data because it focused on speed, iteration, and learning, and we soon found a lot of demand from other impact investors, foundations and corporations for this approach. Everyone was experiencing the yawning gap between counting outputs—how many lamps were sold, or students were trained—and outcomes—what was happening in people’s lives as a result of owning the solar lamp.
Seeing this demand, we realised that the time was right to bring the Lean Data approach to the world. Acumen had a long history of developing new innovations, and for the first time we chose to take a solution we’d developed and spin it off into a new company. In early 2019, 60 Decibels—the name refers to the volume of human conversation—was launched to take the Lean Data approach forward by making it easy to listen to the people who matter most.
The timing for our spinout could not be better. We are just 10 years away from the 2030 deadline to achieve the SDGs, and yet our sector as a whole is hampered by underdeveloped tools for learning, iteration and improvement. 60 Decibels exists to empower anyone making social change to learn more quickly, so that they can create more relevant and more impactful solutions for the people they aim to serve.
What we have found is that nearly everyone struggles to understand their customers better: whether you are an entrepreneur with a new solution to a long-standing problem, or an investor aiming to deploy tens of millions of dollars of capital, the standard of practice in our space is to refer to existing studies and research to analyze the impact you could be having, rather than gather data from the people your company serves to understand the impact you actually are having. It’s as if we’re trying to fly a plane with just a map and no instrument panel: we might get where we’re heading if we do all the analysis right, but our ability to adapt and adjust—when the weather changes or when one of our assumptions proves wrong—is hampered because we lack crucial, ongoing information. This gap, if we don’t address it, will keep us from providing meaningful, lasting value to the customer, which in social business, is the ultimate measure of impact.