Upending Tradition: Focusing on the Collective over the Individual

By Hannah Feinberg Romick

For many years, social scientists have been working to understand how communities, individuals, and organizations intersect. It used to be that a majority of community members went to church on a Sunday, listened to the an- nouncements about upcoming activities, and met up with friends and neighbors after service to discuss the latest goingson. Community involvement was relatively simple. Now, people are leading more complex lives. A plethora of options and an abundance of information means that people are customizing almost every one of their interactions. Gone is the weekly routine and its closeknit networks. In its stead is a swirling, evolving, and incredibly fastpaced web of activities that has people running from here to there, and engaging with one organization one week, another the next. Amidst the chaos, organizations and community leaders are wondering how they lost influence on the lives of citizens.

At Measuring Success, we have made it our mission to understand how changing attitudes and behaviors affect the way people interact with their local communities. Over the last few years, the rise of technological advances in data capture and analysis has allowed us new ways to understand the evolving structure of community relationships.

One of the ways we learn about how communities grow and change over time is called a community study. A com- munity study involves a baseline understanding of: Who lives where? How many people are there? What is the aver- age income? How many children do people have? Traditionally this information has been obtained via what’s called a sampling approach, such as a telephone survey to a small group of people. Results are then used to infer infor- mation about a larger group.

This sampling approach has significant limitations in today’s world. How many people answer phone calls from un- recognizable numbers? And, if they do, and learn that it is a survey – how often do they complete it? Because of the limited sample of people who respond to telephone surveys, organizations are left without a large enough dataset to provide thorough analysis of individual behaviors.

As a society, we are increasingly realizing that onetime sampling approaches do not answer the questions that or- ganizations care most about: How can I better reach people? How can I develop programs and fundraising appeals that target an individual’s interests? What are the changing attitudes and behaviors of member constituents’ over time? These are the questions that Measuring Success is interested in exploring with our partners. 

As opposed to the traditional survey approach, our community study methodology starts with the premise that the whole is greater than its parts. We upend the traditional sampling mechanism by acquiring data from the entire com- munity, not just a small sample portion. Our primary data sources are organizations. Organizations provide us with da- ta sets after ensuring the strictest adherence to privacy standards, meaning no personal information is shared beyond the original organization. We then merge organizational database A with databases from organization B, C, D, etc.

By combining the databases, we have a much larger and more robust set of information to work with in order to learn more about community members. For example, we can ascertain population size with accuracy previously unknown. More interestingly, though, we can analyze community engagement. Are individuals involved with multiple organiza- tions or just one? Does interest in one activity correlate with a person’s interest in something else? Do children partici- pate in the same organizations as their parents? The partner organizations involved in the project can then use that information to provide more tailored services to meet their members/customers’ needs and better strengthen a community’s engagement. 

In today’s increasingly personalized marketplace, organizations and community leaders must be willing to use their data to drive engagement results. Beneficiaries and members of these “networked” and “intelligent” organizations will increasingly believe that the community is looking out for their respective interests when the organizations with whom they are involved reach out to them in a more personalized way. Fortunately, in our increasingly resourced environ- ment, data consolidation through the collective efforts of many organizations is a quick win in providing better services to communities.

Hannah Romick is Director of Collective Impact at Measuring Success and can be reached at Hannah@measuringsuccess.com.