As part of Future of Good’s Dismantling Digital Barriers Summit in November 2021, Alicia Richins of Common Approach was invited to participate in a panel on technology standards for nonprofits. Keith Jansa, CIO’s Executive Director, and Moe Aryaie of United Way Centraide also joined the conversation, which was hosted by CIO‘s Katie Gibson. The discussion sparked the following reflection on data standards and the role of Common Approach’s Common Impact Data Standard in this space.

Common Impact Data Standard

Data Standards as a Means to Dismantle Digital Barriers in the Social Purpose Sector

by Alicia Richins

The past year and a half of pandemic-related disruptions have underscored the challenges faced by social purpose organizations in digitizing their services and showing up online for the communities they serve. As we transition into some version of a “new normal,” the reality is that many more digital transformations are on the way, some more disruptive than others.

At the Common Approach, we advocate for a digital transformation that will help more than hinder the work of social purpose organizations. We believe that for many organizations, this balance can be found in impact measurement. 

The practice of impact measurement can be burdensome and confusing, as organizations navigate an alphabet soup of impact measurement frameworks and approaches while trying to satisfy multiple funders’ reporting requirements. This leads to inconsistencies across the sector that make it near impossible to share and aggregate data in a way that would help us better understand the overall impact of the sector’s work. 

Each of the four standards that comprise the Common Approach tackle this challenge from a different angle, including the Common Impact Data Standard. It is a clear example of a digital transformation that would make impact measurement easier and more relevant for social purpose organizations seeking to better understand and improve their impact for their own means. It also allows for quality data collection for portfolio and sector-wide insights that funders and other bodies need.

The following were my responses in a panel discussion about Technology Standards in the social purpose sector, at Future of Good’s recent Dismantling Digital Barriers Summit, where I explained our Common Impact Data Standard in more detail:

What are data standards and data models? 

In order to share, exchange, combine and understand data, we must standardize the format as well as the meaning. Data standards tell us what to record and how to present it. This allows us to use data across organizations in a common “language.”

Containers hold beads of various shapes and sizes sorted by colour.Data models map out the relationships (properties) between different data objects (classes) in a given context. They help us make sense of the data.

For example, in the context of impact measurement, a data model would tell us about the relationships between objects, such as inputs, activities, outputs and outcomes (in other words, a mapping out of a theory of change) within a peculiar standard.

Use cases: What challenges is the sector facing in its use of digital technology and data? How can standards be used to address these challenges?  

For many in the sector, impact measurement is expensive and onerous. This has led to inconsistent impact measurement practices that make data aggregation and comparison virtually impossible, which is a key impediment to the effective and efficient evaluation of the success of the nonprofit sector.

The Common Approach was devised in response to the call for greater consistency in impact measurement throughout the sector, to reduce costs and produce comparable data.

Among our other standards, our Common Impact Data Standard is a base technology that creates the possibility for sophisticated impact data collection, which in turn allows software developers to offer more advanced impact data analysis. The standard allows softwares to essentially speak to each other. This data interoperability makes data sharing and aggregation easier for social purpose organizations and gets us consistent, quality data overall.

Standards development: How are standards developed? Who should be involved? 

Standards are communities, not documents. They are conceived in response to a need and are maintained as living, iterated models that change to suit the needs of their users.

They should be developed by content and context experts. This means those with the technical expertise, yes, need to guide us to ensure efficiency and best practice, but those with the lived experience of using the standard—the context experts—also need to be involved to ensure the standard’s effectiveness and ease of use.

At the Common Approach, we are committed to community-driven standards development, whereby those using the standards have a seat at the governance table deciding how that standard should change over time. This is slow, trust-based work that is required to make space to listen to the voices of those whose lives are most affected by the work of the sector.

Adoption: How are standards adopted and used? 

Data standards can be embedded in digital products!

Like I mentioned before, the Common Impact Data Standard is a base technology, i.e. it is a digital product. You can absolutely use the standard with a spreadsheet to capture all of your impact data and manage it similarly to how you may already be operating (and we have one available free online). But the real “magic” in the Common Impact Data Standard is that all of the technical work of mapping classes and properties and linked data is done for you by any aligned  impact management software.

In other words, your software provider can do all the work for you on the back end and literally nothing has to change on the front end of your user interface.

It just means that instead of or in addition to narrative descriptions of impact stored in a pdf somewhere, you will also be prompted to break the story down into smaller objects of data, that can be translated to support ongoing data collection and analysis of your impact while fitting into funder and industry assessments of impact. It takes impact measurement out of excel sheets and word docs, and into dynamic, interoperable software.

What are the considerations for Indigenous Data Sovereignty?

Our work is rooted in the First Nations Information Governance Center(FNIGC)’s principles of OCAP – ownership, control, access and possession of data. Our data standard in particular is built on linked data, whereby social purpose organizations do not need to be asked to give up copies of their data, but rather share controlled links to that data. This empowers them to exercise Ownership, Control, Access and Possession and enables relationships of data sharing instead of extraction.

Connected to that is the consideration of how we do impact measurement more generally. At the Common Approach, we have started to undertake some work looking at Indigenous approaches impact measurement and are committed to merging that with our Common Foundations of Impact Measurement Standard, as participatory engagement with those whose lives are most affected (also known as “stakeholders”). That is the piece that is core and central to the work of Indigenous impact measurement and we need to guide the rest of the community along with us to really make sure the voices of those who are most affected are heard and respected.

The key take-away—impact measurement standards are needed, and are already in development!

Today’s focus is on our Common Impact Data Standard, but we have three other important standards for impact measurement that we think will make life easier for the social purpose sector. You can learn more about them in our quick guide. They are all flexible, related, open-source and free to use.

There is a role for every actor in the sector to participate in the ongoing development of standards. At the Common Approach, we believe that social purpose organizations should be the conductor, directing the development of the standards most useful to them and their communities.

For those looking to get involved, join our mailing list to hear about:

  • We will soon be launching a call for folks interested in sitting in the “engine room” of the Common Impact Data Standard (and the Common Foundations), to join one of our Action Tables and direct the governance of the standard over the next few years.
  • We will also be launching a call for networks of social purpose organizations (and their funders and softwares) to join a pilot that will model the impact of our 4 standards in action.
  • In the meantime, we invite software developers to check out our open-source code and consider aligning your impact measurement products with our impact data standard! 
  • If you’re a social purpose organization or funder and you’d like to get your impact/grant management software provider aligned with our Common Impact Data Standard, we’d love to hear from you.

These are only a few of the ways to get involved and adopt the Common Approach standards. If you would like to discuss how you can get involved, or if you have any questions, we encourage you to be in touch!  You can also join the conversation by following us on LinkedIn and Twitter

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