When my daughter was in elementary school, she and her friends were Girl Scouts. Theirs was an active troop, led by several mothers and supported by a number of fathers, myself included. The girls did all the traditional Girl Scout activities—camping, volunteering, selling cookies—and they loved it!

Palo Alto, Calif., where I live, has a long history with the Girl Scouts. The local Lou Henry Hoover Girl Scout House, a rustic building constructed in 1926, is the oldest continuously active Girl Scout meeting house in the United States. It was built by and named after the former first lady Lou Henry Hoover (Herbert Hoover’s wife), who established in Palo Alto the first Girl Scout troop on the West Coast and served for a time as president of Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA).

What I didn’t know then was that in 2004, right when my daughter was a scout, GSUSA was beginning a major transformation, one that is still taking place. It’s hard for a 104-year-old organization like GSUSA to change, but it’s necessary. Membership has been falling—from 3.8 million in 2004 to 2.7 million today—and the Girl Scouts need to adapt.

In this issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, we are proud to publish “Upgrading a Network,” a look in depth at the changes at GSUSA—everything from streamlining the organizational structure to enabling scouts to sell cookies online. The article was written by Sarah Murray, a terrific freelance journalist who writes for the Financial Times and the Economist Group. 

One of the reasons the GSUSA embarked on its transformation was that it needed to adapt to the digital revolution. Nonprofit organizations like GSUSA have been slower to enter the digital world than for-profit businesses, but many are beginning to do so. To help nonprofits better understand and benefit from the digital revolution, we are also publishing in this issue of the magazine the article “Using Data for Action and for Impact,” written by Jim Fruchterman, the founder and CEO of Benetech. 

Fruchterman is one of the leading experts on how nonprofits and social businesses can better use data to be more effective. He argues that there are two basic types of data. One is data that helps nonprofits operate more effectively, what Fruchterman calls “data for action.” This kind of data, such as how many meals an organization delivered each day and at what cost, is relatively easy to identify, gather, and measure. 

The other type of data, what Fruchterman calls “data for impact,” tells the organization whether the meals it delivered had a lasting impact on people’s lives. This data is much more difficult to identify, gather, and measure. But it is imperative that organizations do it, and the digital revolution—smart phones, easy-to-use apps, wristband health monitors, and the like—is making it much more possible to do.

As Fruchterman writes in his article, “Despite the challenges for the social sector in managing data effectively, the data imperative is here to stay. The dropping cost of technology makes collecting data far more affordable and easier than in the past. Data will make the work of social change agents more effective and will build the case for support for the best programs and enterprises.” Those nonprofit organizations, like GSUSA, that embrace the digital revolution and the changes that it brings will benefit the most.

Read more stories by Eric Nee.

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