By Esther Wang and Emily Coppel
When donors look for ways to make a positive difference in the world, direct service organizations are a logical starting point — whether it is the nonprofit empowering girls in Nepal or distributing antimalarial nets in affected areas around the world. Donors in the U.S. give about $22 billion to international organizations. These grantees are doing vital work, and much of it effectively. But many could be significantly more cost effective in their initiatives if they had access to data and evidence to amplify their impact.
This is where donors can step in. By supporting “amplifier organizations” — those that use their unique and targeted technical skills to enable other entities to improve more lives — donors have an opportunity to create a multiplier effect, taking a program to a new level of impact.
Data can inform decision-making both in real time and as a project evolves and responds to changing needs. As a result, intermediary organizations have an important role to play. Equipped with technical know-how in data science and impact evaluation, they often have skills beyond what many nonprofits or governments can afford to staff in house. They can enable service providers to do even more good, especially when budgets are tight. It is more effective when these teams partner to rigorously answer exactly the right questions together, on the right timeline, and in the context of the particular direct service organization. The examples below explore how amplifier organizations can use these tools to improve a program’s design, scale up, and also hold political leaders accountable to citizens.
Many donors and organizations think about monitoring and evaluation as a check mark. The program worked, check. Few organizations are using evidence and data to ensure their positive impact as well as improve upon it. But when evidence is used as a learning tool, there is tremendous opportunity to improve impact.
For example, IDinsight, a global advisory, data analytics, and research organization where we work, partnered with the Zambian Ministry of Health and UNICEF to figure out how to address maternal mortality in Zambia. The Ministry wanted to attract more expecting mothers to government health clinics, which lowers health risks to women giving birth. Specifically, it wanted to understand whether expensive gifts for new mothers, known as “Mama Kits,” which included goods and resources, were incentivizing mothers to come to the clinics rather than giving birth at home. But in a resource-constrained setting with limited government budget, there was no evidence showing that Mama Kits were the right investment to improve maternal health.
IDinsight conducted a rigorous evaluation to see if a less expensive Mama Kit could incentivize mothers to deliver their babies in health clinics. The analysis found that Mama Kits sold for more than $10 would not be cost-effective relative to other health initiatives. In the end, a three-month-long impact evaluation found that a cheaper $4 Mama Kit, which included cloth, a diaper, and a baby blanket, was sufficient; it increased mothers’ deliveries at clinics by 42 percent. With this information, the Zambian government decided to continue providing Mama Kits to mothers, but amplified its impact by lowering the cost so they could reach more mothers and babies.
Amplifiers can also help scale up social impact using data, evidence, and innovative tools like machine learning. A recent partnership developed in India to reach girls not currently enrolled in school offers an example. Educate Girls, a nonprofit that helps families enroll their children in school and provides additional tutoring, hired IDinsight to support and strengthen its programming. After a robust impact evaluation illustrated the effectiveness of its program, Educate Girls was tasked with a familiar challenge: how could it scale up to reach more girls? Given limited resources, Educate Girls couldn’t reach every village in India; it would have to decide which areas to prioritize.
In the absence of difficult-to-come-by or nonexistent data, the best option for an organization like Educate Girls is to target communities based on a calculation of feasibility and cost. Where would it be easiest for us to quickly expand? But working with IDinsight allowed Educate Girls to ask instead: Where are the most out-of-school girls who are in need of this program? How do we maximize our resources to do the most good?
Using machine-learning algorithms to predict the number of out-of-school girls in potential expansion areas, IDinsight helped Educate Girls identify where the majority reside and pinpoint the villages to which it should expand its services. Without this analysis and predictive tool, we estimate Educate Girls would have reached about one million out-of-school girls with its budget and previous approach. But now, using this data and tool to inform its program implementation, Educate Girls could reach around 600,000 additional girls, or 60 percent more students, for about the same cost.
Intermediary organizations not only enable nonprofits to exponentially improve their social impact and reach, they can also strengthen political leaders’ accountability to the people they serve. This ability to bolster systems can have significant social impact, at scale, in both the short and long term.
For example, IDinsight has also unlocked more social impact by embedding teams within national government departments in initiatives we call Learning Partnerships. One current Learning Partnership with the Government of India’s cross-cutting department of planning, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), is using data and evidence to inform and improve agriculture, financial inclusion, health, and sanitation services, among others.
Working specifically with the Ministry of Women and Child Development to support the government’s initiative to improve child malnutrition, IDinsight rigorously tested the most effective ways to deliver health messages to parents. This research and analysis found that using street plays to educate parents was not leading to significant improvements in children’s nutrition. IDinsight’s findings led the government to channel approximately $1.25 million USD of street play funding towards more effective health education approaches like community health meetings and home visits. As examples like this show, by improving government allocation of resources, third-party organizations can help maximize governments’ budgets to improve impact, while also using data to facilitate further accountability to the people. This partnership and its cross-sector work alone has the potential to reach 250 million people living in more than 100 of India’s poorest districts.
The multiplier opportunity can create an environment in which an investment of several hundred thousand dollars can directly amplify billions of dollars and improve millions of lives — far more than would be possible without thoughtful engagement of the right amplifying partner.
Esther Wang is a founding partner of IDinsight and resides in Zambia.
Emily Coppel is associate director of communications at IDinsight and resides in the United States.
Follow IDinsight on Twitter at @IDinsight.