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What Nonprofits Can Learn from Consumer Reports and the Potato Chip

This article was first published on Impatient Optimists, the blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and is used here with permission. Soon, you’ll read down to the potato chip, and you may rightly be astounded, perhaps even spurred into action as a data superhero of sorts. But prior to donning the cape, return to the top of this article and pick up a shovel to begin the groundwork that must support any intelligent action: construction of a living system of stocks, flows and uses of interoperable data.

When my parents were first married in the mid 1960’s, money was tight. My dad was in the air force and my mom was a nurse.

My mom recently told me one of the only magazines they subscribed to when they started out was Consumer Reports. They wanted to make sure they had expert information to guide their few decisions on purchases, information they could combine with recommendations from friends and family and their own preferences and needs.

Consumer Reports has been helping individuals make purchasing decisions in the United States since 1936. Now we have a plethora of information sources, most online, to help us make consumer decisions, including online sources that aggregate and combine opinions, reviews, public data and more.

But we don’t have the same kinds of information sources to guide our giving decisions – whether they are personal donations or something much larger from a business or institution. We have passionate requests, vibrant stories, and an increasing number of ways to give money and volunteer time, but few comprehensive sources of hard data on the issues, the solutions, and the organizations working to meet the tough challenges of our time

This is not just a need for donors. Leaders of nonprofits and NGOs, media, policy makers, and most importantly, beneficiaries of services need critical data and information that could increase results for everyone.

Companies use an enormous amount of data to design the perfect, irresistible potato chip. Why aren’t we regularly accessing the same kinds of information to design and run the products, services, and tools that can change lives?

New data sets are being collected and often opened up to the public every day that have relevance for the work of social good, but the information often exists in silos – there are thousands of “data islands” that aren’t easy to combine or analyze.

Your average donor, organizational leader, or community member could spend all his or her time trying to find, connect, and use data, leaving little energy to apply the information to better decision making and greater impact. Many quit before they even start.

One of the biggest barriers to easy use is “interoperability”. Data sets are collected and exist in formats and systems that don’t easily talk to one another. It’s the combining and “mashing up” of all this information that lets us take it to the next level – to the knowledge that can help us make better informed decisions about the services we use, the work of our organizations, and our giving choices.

The challenge of interoperability is tough and that’s why we’re looking for creative ideas and approaches through the Grand Challenges Explorations program.

The social sector is full of passion, commitment, dedication, vision, and hard work, but resources are scarce and limited. Making data and information easier to use and more connected will give us one more powerful tool in the toolkit.

We need not just the Consumer Reports of social good, but the tools to enable all of us in the social sector to make better decisions and have greater impact.

Can you help? What’s your big idea?

Apply now for “Increasing Interoperability of Social Good Data.” This topic is in partnership with Liquidnet for Good.