In the early ’90s, I owned a company that raised money for nonprofit organizations. The work was exciting and gratifying. Success was measured by whether I reached my fundraising target, and I was successful at it. One day I received a call from a group of nuns who wanted to purchase mobile homes in order to provide primary health care on the U.S.-Mexico border. The project was more than worthy, but I found very little support for it.
Since most opportunities present themselves in the form of a challenge, I began thinking about how nonprofit organizations could prove their work was providing the outcomes they claimed.
“Telling their story in a way that fits into the larger conversation about outcomes and metrics and evaluation is still a challenge.”
Two decades later, I am the founder and CEO of nFocus Solutions, a company that does just this. We have clients in almost every city across America. Our software is used by over 5,000 agencies nationally. We also work across agency boundaries, providing data-sharing technologies to entire communities.
While everyone at nFocus is extremely proud of the work we do, I believe that many of the same issues I struggled with twenty years ago continue to exist in the sector:
- In order to succeed, we must share data amongst programs and services that are common to an individual. Yet, organizational and political barriers between social and public programs block access to such a comprehensive information ecosystem.
- Our clients are obliged to provide measurements and outcomes to funders. There is rarely coordination amongst funders and in many cases, organizations are at cross-purposes due to the specific “system” and data requirements they must meet.
- We are extremely proud of all of our clients; they do difficult work every single day, working to meet the needs of the people they serve. Yet, telling their story in a way that fits into the larger conversation about outcomes and metrics and evaluation is still a challenge.
- There is never enough time to do what needs to be done. Yet, making social sector work more data-informed is a significant additional undertaking for all stakeholders.
I have always believed that tools like the software we produce at nFocus have a role to play in addressing these issues. I now realize that technology is not enough.
Learning to build relationships like this between vendors and communities is unmapped territory – not just for us, but for the entire social sector. For example, in the Markets for Good “Concept Paper,” vendors are not listed as key stakeholders in this sector. Additionally, in the Markets for Good “Selected Readings,” only one section was written by someone who builds products for the sector. Most recently, The Lake Washington Declaration, which we fully support, was developed at a conference at which, of 70+ attendees, only one person represented a vendor (as opposed to the philanthropic arm of an interested corporate party).
“In order to succeed, we must share data amongst programs and services that are common to an individual.”
When I consider the question, “How do we collectively build an infrastructure to provide everyone in the social sector with the insight they need to inform their decisions?” it’s obvious that vendors and tool-builders – like nFocus – have a crucial role to play in building that infrastructure.
If we believe that markets truly have a productive role to play in creating social value beyond philanthropy (and I do!), then we need to really dig in to what that means for the design, delivery, and use of tools, products and goods for the social sector. And my company intends to be at the forefront of that exploration.
As a first step in beginning this learning journey, we have brought on Emily S. Lin as our first Director of Community Analytics and Learning. Emily will be working with our company, our academic and philanthropic partners, and our clients to improve the use of data in driving organizational learning and youth outcomes. She will present relevant insights from both research and practice in future posts here and on our own blog – Ideas nFocus – and reflect on the ways in which nFocus is trying to incorporate those insights into building better, more useful technological systems for the social sector.
By joining the Markets for Good community, Emily and I hope to serve as a front line for conversations about what it means to make things that are useful and powerful for the social sector. We look forward to shared inquiry, debate, and, most of all, productive exchange with the many voices represented here.