Online Grant Management - Millennium Development Goals and Data

Millennium Development GoalsThis morning, I attended the Washington DC viewing of TEDxChange.  For the uninitiated, TED is an organization that presents talks (generally at TED - Technology, Entertainment, Design - conferences) by interesting and accomplished people, or, as the organization frames it, "Ideas worth spreading."

(As an aside, TED talks are really worth checking out.  One of my favorites has nothing to do with philanthropy or grants – Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk, as a brain surgeon, talking about her experience having a stroke.)

The impetus for this morning's TEDxChange was the 10th anniversary of the UN Millennium Development Goals (for more information about the MDGs, check out the UN MDG site).  The lineup of speakers included Mechai Viravadiya, Founder and Chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (nicknamed "Mr. Condom"), Graca Machel, former Minister for Education and Culture in Mozambique, Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health (and prior TED talk presenter - worth watching), and Melinda French Gates of the Gates Foundation.

I'll leave it to others to summarize everything that was said during the talks (or you can watch the whole thing here), and focus on one theme that emerged as I listened to the talks and to the panel of experts assembled for post-event discussion at AED in Dupont Circle in DC: the importance of data in achieving the MDGs - and in social and economic change in general.

Gates' talk used Coca Cola to highlight things that work in developing countries and to propose some lessons at could be applied to development work.  Coke, she said, does three things incredibly well in developing countries: it uses real-time data, empowers local entrepreneurs, and has incredible marketing.

That first point - having and using real-time data - struck me.  Without data, how do we know what's working and what isn't?  Without data, how do we know if any intervention is actually having an impact?  How can we make a case for supporting one initiative over another?  Or the case to support an organization doing the work?  While NGOs clearly aren't the same thing as a multinational company, the broader point is well taken.  

Hans Rosling's talk also highlighted the importance of data (admittedly, the whole talk was about statistics, so of course data is important!).  He showed compelling visualizations of declines in infant mortality rates in both developing and developed countries (and made the point that, particularly as infant mortality rates decline, the distinction between "Western" and "not Western" countries is increasingly irrelevant).  Without good data - and good data collection tools, how would we know that infant mortality rates are declining?  How could the people and organizations working on that issue identify which interventions are working, or which are the most successful?

The importance of data in social change applies just as clearly to foundations and other grantmakers combating poverty, protecting the environment, and supporting communities here in the U.S.  Good data helps grantmakers determine which organizations to support, which interventions are most effective - and can, perhaps, be replicated, which initiative are, perhaps, less effective.  Long term data - trend analysis over several years - can be particularly helpful in both identifying what's working, and in tracking changes in populations and communities served.  More than just helpful, I would argue that information is critical to the work that nonprofits and philanthropies do every day.   And the importance of good tools to support that data collection can't be understated.  

As governments, NGOs, philanthropies and others continue to work towards the MDGs - and other social, economic, and environmental goals - my hope is that organizations will continue to work together not only to accomplish their goals, but to efficiently track, share, and use the revenant data.

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
September 20, 2010, 09:23 PM

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