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28 Apr. 2014 | Comments (0)

The nonprofit sector is frantically trying to make sense of big data. In particular, it’s trying to understand how it can benefit from this onslaught of information in the same way that the for-profit sector seems to be. The best we’ve managed so far is some shrewd commentary and insightful dialogue—even Giving Thoughts has taken part. But could the Impact Genome Project be the innovation that makes data tangible for the social sector?

The Impact Genome Project was introduced in early April by Jason Saul, founder and CEO of Mission Measurement, and Nolan Gasser, architect of the Music Genome Project and chief musicologist emeritus of online radio station Pandora. The ambitious project aims to do for the social sector what the Human Genome Project did for the health sector, and what the Music Genome Project did for music: codify the data of complex industries to gain “more efficient access to critical information, enabling comparison of seemingly diverse entities and better representing how systems do work in order to predict how they will work in future.” To do this, the Impact Genome Project has developed a taxonomy of 132 common outcomes across the entire social sector, entitled the Universal Outcomes Taxonomy. Users of the taxonomy can measure each social program’s contribution to a common outcome. Saul admits that there are hurdles to overcome, specifically:

  • Enabling the widespread adoption of the taxonomy by both funders and social service providers
  • Building the capacity of organizations to select the right outcomes (“sizing the outcomes”)
  • Continually curating and improving the taxonomy with feedback from practitioners and researchers.

But the social sector needs to turn the potential of data into something tangible, and standardizing outcomes in way that makes them comparable across the broad social sector would be a significant step. Social Impact Bonds have helped demonstrate that impact can be turned into measurable data by placing a value on outcomes. But the process to get there is complicated, requiring intense collaboration and complex negotiations between three sectors that speak a very different language: government, nonprofits and private investors. Not only that, but the final values achieved are heavily tailored to each project and rarely comparable across the sector. I’m interested to hear readers’ thoughts and experiences to date with the Universal Outcomes Taxonomy. Please share them with us in the comments or by contacting me at In the meantime, this is a movement that’s worth watching.

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

    Full Bio | More from Alex Parkinson


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