Lean Data


Building a social purpose business takes time and money. So while it seems like a good thing to seek feedback from customers or beneficiaries, it can also seem like a luxury that is out of reach for most entrepreneurs. That needs to change.

Engaging stakeholders, even very low-income, remote customers, doesn’t need to be expensive and time consuming. With a “Lean Data” approach to gathering impact metrics and customer profile data, social enterprises and the entities that support them can gain direct insights on what employees and customers say matters most, generating actionable data to drive decision-making and support business growth.

Lean Data is focused on the human behind every data point, and centers the voice of the customer in impact measurement and management for social enterprises. A remote, tech-enabled approach supports data collection and analysis that is responsive, fast and impactful. Lean Data combines the benefits of quantitative and qualitative research through remote (mostly phone) surveys, leveraging mobile technology and a global researcher network to communicate directly with customers and beneficiaries in local languages.

In the words of Sasha Dichter, co-developer of the Lean Data approach: “When we began to build Lean Data, we knew first-hand the challenges social enterprises and investors face in gathering meaningful data to guide investment decisions and improve performance…Our goal is to reset the impact management conversation. Impact boils down to a person’s lived experience, but no one is talking to customers, suppliers and employees in a systematic, comparable way.”

Here’s how it works

Starting from a set of core insights questions, which align directly to the Impact Management Project’s Five Dimensions of Impact, and an understanding of what a social enterprise or funder/investor most wants to learn, a survey is designed to gather data on people’s lived experiences. Expertise in asking good questions, training researchers, improving response rates, building rapport, coding qualitative data, and conducting segmented analysis all produce rich insights from a representative sample of end stakeholders.

With a high level of confidence, these remote surveys deliver data on why and how much customers value a company’s services and products, their views on how their lives have improved, and demographics about consumers, particularly income and gender.  Going beyond number of people served, Lean Data enables an accurate picture of who is benefitting and who is left out.  How else can impact be achieved if a full range of customers are not engaged in providing feedback about what is working, for whom, and in what context?

By asking questions in a standardized and comparable way, the aggregated results across companies and sectors create performance benchmarks to put results in context. This targeted and repeatable approach to gathering customer insights and social impact data enables companies and funders to understand their impact relative to peers and to make informed decisions to manage and improve their impact. 

The Lean Data approach makes it easy to incorporate stakeholder engagement right into standard impact measurement and management practice. In addition to aligning directly to the IMP Five Dimensions, surveys can integrate widely accepted metrics and processes, such as the IRIS+ system or SDG target metrics into the survey design. 

The benefit

Investors and donors develop confidence in the social enterprises and are assured that they are not “impact washing.”  Rather, by listening to customers, enterprises ensure that their services and products are having real impact on people’s lives.  Attracting additional investors or making  the case to donor agencies also becomes easier because the impact measurement and management process is based on actual feedback from stakeholders and this is often viewed positively in the due diligence process.

Perhaps more importantly, companies, particularly enterprises in emerging markets,  have made concrete changes to operations, marketing and new business development strategies based on what they hear from their customers.  By using a Lean Data approach to stakeholder engagement, companies will know that the changes that enterprises make are based on a deep understanding of their customer base and the people who they still hope to serve as their businesses grow — resulting in both increased revenues and scaling impact.


60 Decibels, an end-to-end measurement company that led the development of the Lean Data approach, produced a comprehensive report of interviews with nearly 35,000 customers served by 49 off-grid energy companies. These companies operate in 17 countries throughout the global south with a concentration of companies in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This report offers these companies the opportunity to compare their data to one another as well through indexing and comparative data analysis of subsectors and regions as well as customer characteristics such as gender and income.

Omidyar Network has used Lean Data to gather comparable impact metrics across their full portfolio. In 2020, Omidyar India published a report on their learnings from Lean Data studies with 200+ customers from each of 16 portfolio organizations. These results provided actionable data for their portfolio companies, as well as for their investment team.

Learn More

Check out these blogs and reports.  See for yourselves how listening to customers and beneficiaries is good for both business and people or planet.



Prepared by Jane Reisman, Social Impact Advisor, with input and source documents provided from 60 Decibels and leadership from Lindsay Smalling. 

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