The Globetrotting Social Enterprise Using 'Small' Data to Change the World
Erin Stewart — Social AdVentures
Big data may grab headlines, but it’s harnessing “small data” that really makes the difference for most nonprofits trying to change the world. While more specific and targeted, there’s nothing small about understanding how a natural disaster affects drinking water demand or learning the most popular point of distribution for free vaccines. That’s the mission behind Vera Solutions, a social enterprise that helps organizations collect vital information about their programs and use it to improve their services.
Zak Kaufman, 30, says the idea for Vera, a for-profit venture, was sparked in 2008 while he and the company’s two co-founders were working in South Africa for an HIV prevention organization in the midst of an unwieldy data crisis. Important information about the nonprofit’s HIV testing and treatment programs was buried in reams of paper and fiddly spreadsheets and updated only quarterly. The whole organization was affected: “We didn’t have feedback loops to people who were collecting this data or people managing the programs in the field,” says Kaufman. “And so we overhauled that.”
Kaufman, along with co-founders Taylor Downs and Karti Subramanian, developed a cloud-based app to make it easier to track exactly whom the organization helped and in what ways. As a result, staff could easily see their programs’ effectiveness, improving their reports to donors and the way they allocated resources. Employees felt less burdened and frustrated by messy information and better informed about the nonprofit’s achievements.
“I would say from the hundreds of organizations that we’ve interacted with in the last few years, the average organization doesn't have a consolidated, well-structured database of its beneficiaries or the services it delivers,” says Kaufman. As an example, he describes a group in Haiti that uses music and performance programs to empower young people and foster a sense of hope and community in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. Before working with Vera, it would have taken the nonprofit days to answer relatively simple demographic questions about who took which class, what attendance rates were, and how satisfied students were with the programs. Now cloud-based software helps the group track all that information in real time.
According to Kaufman, Vera’s status as a for-profit entity is actually quite valuable to its nonprofit clients. “Private sector companies tend to be more adept at looking at the return on their investments, partly because it’s easier for them to measure their bottom line. The social sector is less mature in thinking this way and measuring returns on investment,” says Kaufman.
For example, “a lot of organizations aren't always making smart investments when it comes to technology,” he says. One of Vera’s clients is Sanergy, a nonprofit in Nairobi that franchises low-cost toilets to people living where formal sanitation is not accessible. Those people can then charge others to use the toilets. Sanergy safely disposes of the waste and records the amount collected each day. Because electronic devices have a high risk of theft in some of the areas Sanergy operates in, the organization decided to record data on paper in the field and later manually transcribe it to a computer. It wasn’t a bad system given the constraints, but new handwriting recognition software made an immediate difference, by converting the handwritten documents into digital files. While it previously took Sanergy staff up to five hours to enter one day’s worth of data, the new software takes 15 minutes.
To implement solutions such as these around the globe, Vera has teams stationed in Mumbai, Cape Town, Geneva, and Boston. The venture is launching a team in Washington, D.C., and previously had a team in Nairobi. The staff of nearly 50 young consultants and developers work beyond the confines of their offices as well, for more than 170 different nonprofits in 45 countries. “I think that openness to travel and working in different geographies is a real pro,” says Kaufman of Vera’s appeal to its mainly millennial workforce.
In 2012, Vera co-founder Downs was awarded a prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship to expand Vera’s mission, and since then the company has operated as a self-sustaining enterprise, keeping their services affordable by using pre-existing software to suit clients’ needs. Kaufman says that the Echoing Green award was an important turning point. Aside from the financial boost, the fellowship also provided connections throughout the nonprofit sector that led to new clients all over the world. “The vast majority of our business comes by word-of-mouth. And so it’s on all of us to make connections that that turn into projects,” Kaufman says. In less than five years, those connections have propelled three people from a good idea to a global venture with offices worldwide and clients* like Oxfam and the United Nations Foundation.
“Vera’s leadership team collectively envisions Vera in 2020 being quite a bit bigger than it is now,” says Kaufman. “Not because we want the company to be bigger for its own sake but because we see that there is a need for the work that we’re doing, and we see that we’re having an impact with organizations that we’re serving.”
Ultimately what guides Kaufman and his team is that expansive idea of value—it’s not about money, it’s about impact.
* One of Vera Solutions' previous clients is the Skoll Foundation, founded by Jeff Skoll, an advisor to Make Change's parent company Aspiration.
Art by Eli Miller