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Social Returns and “What’s In It For Me?”

ID-1009110Carly Pippin of Measuring-Success …”We’ve seen a valuable lesson emerge from collaborations between school districts, faith-based groups, and city-wide non-profits: there is no social return without a little WIIFM -‘What’s in it for me?’  How could this be appropriate for achieving social return? Isn’t the whole point of social good to consider ‘What’s in it for them?'” It turns out that, when designing metrics schemes, this question is a critical one for each stakeholder to answer openly and for the others to take into account.  Andrew Foote, Analyst at Measuring-Success, continues the thought with a few examples of what this looks like in practice.

Collaborations between groups that listen to individual goals are the ones that make the most positive social change. I often am inspired by Derek Sivers, a frequent speaker at TED and founder of CD Baby. He started a simple website to sell his own CDs, but then began allowing friends and other musicians (with their own WIIFM interests) to collaborate, making the website even more popular. In 2008, CD Baby became the largest seller of independent music online with over 150,000 musicians. Beyond bequeathing the $22 million to a charitable trust for music education, the WIIFM concept conceived an outlet for Derek Sivers and thousands of independent artists after him to learn, be heard, earn a living, and share their creativity with the world.

We’ve seen WIIFM at work in our own projects. We recently helped an AmeriCorps affiliate, America Reads Mississippi (ARM), assess their ability to increase elementary education reading levels across the state. Our analysis showed that between the fall and spring, ARM helped 90% of students to improve, and provided areas for ARM to focus on. This analysis couldn’t have happened without participation across multiple levels and stakeholders. As program manager, AmeriCorps had vested interest in ARM’s efficacy, but so did the 46 schools and 5 regions participating. What motivated the schools to comply with requests for their data, when it meant significant investments of time and resources? The schools were compelled by WIIFM: the desire to improve their school’s reading scores. The data was also being analyzed at the district and regional level. What inspired involvement in those spheres? The desire to focus efforts on underperforming regions. We often think of outputs from an analysis in tiers that are useful for each stakeholder.

So, in terms of collaboration towards social returns, what is in it for you? Actionable data, or as Chair of the Social Innovation Exchange, John Hugget puts it: data for “improving, not proving”. Organizing data systems for improving certainly does require a significant amount of operational support (working capital, management support) and based on the clients we’ve worked with, it’s definitely been worth it. It’s worth it because the right operational support allows all stakeholders’ hypotheses for “improving” to be heard from the onset. These hypotheses drive the structure and thus the outputs for a shared data system. Now, instead of stakeholders asking why are they implementing a data system, they are asking when do I get to see the update on my metrics?

WIIFM drives collaborations that start small but lead to large social returns, particularly when data systems are in tiered levels. When designing metrics, ask, “Does the WIIFM test hold at each level?”


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The WIIFM test should hold at every tier within an organization (In schools, that includes teachers, support assistants, administrators, and state government). This may mean—and most often does—that the data system has different outputs for each group.

And while requiring operational support to devise, WIIFM-style collaborations are successful when the results help organizations and individuals become self-teaching in their iterations and do a better job. Incidentally, the better at integrating WIIFM you get, the less the results are about “me” but rather “them”—the student, the underprivileged, the sick, or whoever the beneficiary of your program may be.

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