Module 12 – Collecting and Using Lean Data


One of the primary functions involved in impact measurement is the collection of data. This is often where a substantial amount of time, money and effort is allocated. In practice, it is also one of the most challenging activities, for a range of methodological and practical reasons. However, a new generation of tools is being developed and tested to make data collection more efficient through the use of information technologies (especially mobile phones and platforms), to optimize data collection and analysis to reduce errors and improve validity, and to build more effective evidence-based decision-making processes as a result.

One promising approach – called Lean Data – is being led by Acumen and its partners. The Lean Data approach involves the “application of lean experimentation principles to the collection and use of social performance data.” As Acumen explains, “the core philosophy behind Lean Data is to build, from the ground up, a data collection mindset and methodology that works for social enterprises.” This approach “involves a shift in mindset away from reporting and compliance and toward gathering data that drives decisions. Lean Data uses low cost-technology to communicate directly with end customers, generating high-quality data both quickly and efficiently.”

While data collection is often a major focus, it is at least equally important to use the data collected to prove impact and improve performance, as well as for broader learning. It is often challenging for social enterprise investees to construct the processes, capabilities and systems to collect and use impact data, as well as to allocate the necessary time, effort and money towards it. Fruchterman and Trelstad offer some guidance as it relates to social enterprises and those that work in, and with, them. One important lesson is the distinction between impact measurement for accountability, and viewing it as a contributor to performance management to improve operational outcomes and mission alignment.


The Lean Data Collection Process

Source: Acumen 2015


Read one of the case studies in the Innovations in Impact Measurement document. In small groups, discuss whether the case was able to align with all the lean data principles. What questions do you have about their approach, results or lessons? What would you have done differently, and why? Based on the limited information available in the case, propose three to five potential strategies to involve beneficiaries in data collection and analysis, particularly (but not exclusively) using mobile or online technologies. This should also include your thoughts on how the organization could share the data with beneficiaries.


Acumen. Innovations in Impact Measurement: Lessons Using Mobile Technology from Acumen’s Lean Data Initiative and Root Capital’s Client-Centric Mobile Measurement, New York, No Date.

Acumen. The Lean Data Field Guide: Tips For Collecting Customer Data to Build More Impactful Businesses, New York, 2015.

Fruchterman, J. Using Data for Action and for Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2016.

Trelstad, B. Simple Measures for Social Enterprise, Innovations, (3): 105-18, 2008.