Lessons We’ve Learned From Fighting Social Exclusion

We Foundation works towards making social impact measurement transparent, comparable and quantifiable. However, getting from preaching on PowerPoint presentations to actually providing first real data and technology tools to the third sector partners has not been easy. CEO Tiina-Maija Toivola writes about We Foundation’s journey and recent achievements towards a more inclusive and equitable society.

Social exclusion is a big and hairy global problem. Only in the European Union, it was estimated that almost ten million young adults were without a job or education pre-pandemic. On average, this means that over 17% of the generation had dropped out of the social system.

Since We Foundation (Me-säätiö) was founded in 2015, we’ve had an ambitious mission to not only understand and define social exclusion among children, youth and families. We also wanted to deliver real tools, data and impact measurement that truly help the organizations working hands-on in the field. Looking back six years later, that has been easier said than done.

Understanding the complexity

We Foundation started off by funding a variety of projects and creating preventive concepts for children, youth, and families together with partners in the nonprofit and public sector. Primarily, we saw the role of the Foundation in solving the phenomenon through preventive work; producing, promoting and ensuring protective means and activities for children, youth and families.

Over the years, we talked about metrics, measuring impact, and using data and technology in the work against social exclusion. However, we started to notice that it was not easy to put all our talk into practice. The impact of preventive social work, community work or services for children and families are not easily transferred into numbers and data. Preventing social exclusion really is a complex task and there are hundreds of interpretations of what success in this field could look like.

What the many funded projects taught us was that the biggest concrete challenges in the operative field were the lack of data collection, availability, routines, know-how and suitable technology. We also met some suspicion towards introducing reporting practices in the social sector — probably due to the strict GDPR policies. We heard the need for better reporting tools both from our project partners and their financiers but were not able to offer anything drastically new to support with. However, understanding that with better reporting tools, our partners could have developed their operations further and found longer lasting resources for funding got us really rethinking our role.

Meltsi — Learning by doing

In 2019, we decided to run down most of our funding operations. We needed to understand how to show the results of the preventive work better — and decided to learn by doing the operations ourselves. In March 2020, right before the pandemic hit the world, we opened our own open community house for children and families, Meltsi, in Eastern Helsinki.

Similarly to our previous funding projects, what we saw at Meltsi was how the social work and education professionals had their hands full with their everyday job with the surrounding community — there is not much time or capacity to invest in reinventing impact measuring and reporting. To ensure that our professionals had time to focus on their core job, we started to think how we as a foundation with such a long roots in technology, could better support the Meltsi team and operations.

This led to planning for a digital registration path for Meltsi visitors to join the community as members and to an easier and more efficient way for these members to sign-up for the after school programmes. However, still most of our visitor data remained on excel sheets and paper.

First digital data tools

Meltsi operations started to run steadier by the end of 2020, and we had the time to think about how to better monitor the volume and reach of the operations. What really interested us and the Meltsi team was whether we were reaching the core target group — the ones who would benefit the most from the existence of the community house. Having at that point digitized the visitor and member registration path, we saw an opportunity to develop the system further to help us collect, understand and better protect our member data — and to eventually quantify Meltsi’s social impact.

That in mind, we assigned the task of creating data tools to monitor the volume, reach, effectiveness, and impact of operations to our spin-off tech studio Wondershop’s tech team. The set of tools were created during this year in close collaboration with Meltsi team and pilot project partners, such as The Mannerheim League for Child Welfare and Nicehearts.

Together for better decisions

We Foundation is now ready to focus on making social impact measurement transparent, comparable, and quantifiable. There are numerous nonprofits, NGOs and public organisations that excel in offering activities for children and their families. We want to work with them to develop social impact measurement together. Thanks to the learnings from Meltsi and our partners, we have started to distribute tools for data collection and social impact measurement.

We believe that social impact measurement will eventually lead to better services for children, youth and families and help organisations to access funding. Together with our partners, we hope to fundamentally transform how organisations working with children and families report their operations and how public financiers and private investors make investment and financing decisions.