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Creating a culture of impact: IDinsight’s “special sauce”

Ruth Levine 2 May 2023

I joined IDinsight three years ago, grateful for the opportunity to lead a dynamic organization that contributes to social progress through the generation and use of data and evidence. As I wrote earlier, I knew then that IDinsight had a unique role among organizations seeking to apply rigorous methods to hard challenges –– social program design and implementation. What I didn’t know was the powerful connection between what IDinsight aims to achieve in the world and the way it works on the inside. 

This month, as I say farewell to dear colleagues and partners, and transition to a new role at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, I’m reflecting on the ingredients that make up IDinsight’s remarkable organizational position and culture – ingredients that will undoubtedly serve the vision of the next CEO.

Let me tell you about IDinsight’s “special sauce” by describing three elements that you can’t see from the outside: how projects are selected based on potential for real-world impact, how organizational impact is assessed, and how team feedback is used for continuous improvement. In reading this, I think you’ll get a sense of what happens when an obsession with impact meets unrivaled attention to what the facts say – within an organization that seeks to be the best possible professional home for global talent. 

First, project selection.

At any given moment, the IDinsight team is developing a pipeline of future projects – impact and process evaluations, data collection and analysis, opportunities to use machine learning to increase the efficiency of program implementation, and more. If our goal were simply to stay in business, we would choose the projects that pay the bills. If our goal were to publish papers, we would choose the ones with the most novel research questions and designs. But that’s not what IDinsight is built for. Instead, each time a project idea is developed, we figure out whether to pursue it through a formal process to interrogate whether it’s likely to yield real-world impact. 

Beyond the basic questions about capacity and funding, we ask the tough ones: What difference will likely be made by our work? Are we the right partner for this project? Will our government agency or NGO partner have the will and freedom to make changes based on our findings? If they make changes, how meaningfully might that affect people living in poverty or whose life chances are compromised by structural barriers? And how many people will be affected? 

When we’re convinced our efforts – and the funding we might mobilize to support them – have a good chance of yielding social impact, we dedicate ourselves to the project. In contrast, when we see that, despite an opportunity for funding or interesting work, the chance of impact is vanishingly small, we pass. That, my friends, is what obsession with impact looks like.

Second, assessing our own impact.

Over the past two years, we’ve built internal capacity to look at completed projects and systematically assess whether they achieved the type of impact we anticipated during the project selection process. Did we guess right? Or were we surprised by unexpectedly good results – or by disappointing ones?  Developing the methods to do this took a herculean effort, and those who are interested in the details can find them here.

During my tenure we reviewed 140+ projects to assess their impact. We asked people who worked on our projects what methods we used, how large and consequential the questions we tackled were, and what the NGOs, philanthropies, and governments did with the findings and recommendations we generated. In some cases, the responses made us realize that we’d worked hard with little to show for it. In many others, though, we learned that the work had paid off in real-world improvements in lives and livelihoods. 

What we learned has informed our project choices and execution, further enhancing our impact. We can tell the difference between projects that look promising on paper and those that lack the enabling conditions to make them successful. We’re also creating moments for reflection as we design and implement research, so that we can make course corrections when needed. And what we’ve learned about selecting the best projects is informing how we allocate resources from the Catalytic Fund, an internal vehicle that supports high-impact projects that lack adequate funding. That is what it looks like to learn about what drives impact.

The third and final internal process that helps tell the story of IDinsight is how we gather feedback and use it for continuous improvement.

Like many organizations, IDinsight regularly collects information from team members about their experience as employees. Unlike many organizations, IDinsight undertakes an intensive analysis of the data – precious feedback about both systematic problems as well as strengths – and responds with changes in policies and practices. We also regularly share what the data are telling us with colleagues across the organization, so each team can reflect on their successes and opportunities for improvement and make tangible changes.

The results of this data collection have become even more important as the organization has grown and changed. IDinsight now has staff from 33 countries. Compared to the past, many more leaders and team members at all levels have had their academic training and work experience in the Asian and African countries in which we work. This compositional change in our team has dramatically increased our knowledge of the contexts in which we work and has set the stage for the kind of relationship-building that is essential in many projects. It also has meant that we’ve had to listen and work harder to engender a sense of ownership and belonging across a diverse and dynamic team. Recently, we’ve updated our global team survey to elicit perceptions and observations that will help us do precisely that. That’s what it looks like when an organization is manifesting its ambition to be a great professional home for all.

Project selection, impact assessment, and team feedback are three of many ways in which IDinsight walks the talk, matching the story we tell about ourselves with the actions we take. These ingredients in IDinsight’s special sauce – ingredients that have inspired me during the past three years – are embedded in the way the organization works, and will sustain the commitment to impact, learning, and care for colleagues long into the future. This is a tremendous foundation for interim co-CEOs Marc Shotland and Esther Wang, and will serve as a springboard for the next CEO.  

As I say farewell, know that I will be watching and cheering from the sidelines as IDinsight builds on its solid foundation to foster even more impact in the years to come.