Q&A with Crystal Barnes, VP, Corporate Social Responsibility, Nielsen

A CSR trend cited for 2015 has been companies working with nonprofits and governments to use big data for social good. Another trend we’ve seen is companies increasingly collaborating with each other to address change at scale, by harnessing their philanthropy, time and talent. In this Q&A, Yvonne Siu Turner of Points of Light asks Crystal Barnes, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility for Nielsen, how Nielsen is using its unique position in the market as a consumer insights company to live these trends, and to help solve critical social issues.

Q: Tell us about how Nielsen is living the two trends of using big data for social good and collaborating to achieve change at scale.  

A: Our corporate social responsibility program, Nielsen Cares, is focused on how we can make an uncommon impact in the communities where we live and work.  We focus our insights, involvement and investment—what we call our “3Is for Impact Framework”—on opportunities that align with our core competencies. Our four priority cause areas are education, hunger and nutrition, technology, and diversity and inclusion, and they help us directly connect our CSR efforts to our mission of unlocking the power of data for social good. From helping a nonprofit understand how to better reach its donors to helping nonprofits leverage the data that they already have more effectively, our 40,000 associates have the opportunity to engage in skills-based volunteering projects with nonprofits around the world that tap into their unique skills—from marketing effectiveness to business process improvement—to help nonprofits achieve their goals.       

Q: What challenges do nonprofits face using big data? What potential does using and analyzing big data hold for the nonprofit sector?

A: The term “big data” sounds scary, but it’s really just data – and a lot of it!  Soon the two will likely be synonymous.  In practice, Nielsen has been able to use big data to drive success for our clients – and that opportunity is no different for nonprofits.  The potential that big data has to open new frontiers for this sector is immense. It allows you to add additional granularity to your research and hone in on insights that can help illuminate new opportunities. Big data definitely has the ability to be supportive and complementary of a nonprofit’s efforts, regardless of the nonprofit’s mission.

The opportunity for nonprofits is to harness the richness of the data that is available and collaborate with partners to apply it in innovative ways. A prime example is our work with Feeding America and the Map the Meal Gap study. Feeding America wanted to better understand what hunger looked like in the United States at the local level. Through the USDA, they already had an assessment of food insecurity at the state level. Collectively, however, we saw an opportunity to use Nielsen’s expertise of food pricing and availability to narrow the scope and help them to understand the cost of addressing hunger in every county in the United States. For me, that project—something that we’ve continued to work with Feeding America on for the past five years—illustrates how big data can drive powerful results. 

Q: How can big data projects help during times of crisis?

A: That’s actually something that we faced in a recent data collection project with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Asia and Africa. We were helping them engage people in surveys about food insecurity through the use of mobile phone and text-based questionnaires. When the Ebola crisis began in West Africa right in the middle of our project, this mobile data collection became a lot more critical for WFP in terms of understanding what food insecurity looked like in places where they couldn’t send people into the field to conduct their research. 

An interesting outcome of the project was the trickle-down effect of our work in helping the organization be more nimble and respond effectively to a big challenge. It’s all about being able to go beyond the data to make a difference in real-time and bring great ideas to scale. More than just the individual data points, we’re all interested in the larger story that data can tell, and that’s something that’s constantly evolving.

Q: What is the future of using big data for social change?

A:  Something I’m sure the industry will continue to discover is new ways that we can use our data to work with nonprofits in solving social challenges. When I think about the ways that we use our data and insights to collaborate with nonprofits now—whether it’s an increased awareness of how their brand resonates or who they’re reaching effectively as donors—I’m excited by this continued evolution of thoughtfully leveraging data for responsible growth. 

One of the ways we’ve been able to do this is through Nielsen Neuro, which is part of our Marketing Effectiveness portfolio. We’ve been able to apply neuroscience techniques to marketing research with nonprofits like the World Food Programme and Feeding America to help them understand whether their ads are resonating with consumers, and how they might make improvements or adjustments so that their advertising dollars are spent efficiently.

Not only can data help our clients understand what their consumers want and need in markets around the world, but it can also help us solve some of the biggest social challenges of today and tomorrow, together.  And it’s that collaboration that defines success for all of us in the future. 

Q: Nielsen has partnered with Nestle and 200 companies across Europe to form an Alliance for YOUth, which pledges to create more than 100,000 opportunities to address the youth unemployment crisis in Europe. Why did Nielsen join this alliance?

A: Our clients expect us to operate responsibly and do that not just within the parameters of our traditional commercial relationships, but also in taking a leadership role in terms of the responsibility that we have to better our communities. Because of that, this opportunity to collaborate with Nestle and others was perfect because it aligned a critical social need with something that’s also critical for our organization: ensuring that we have a sustainable, robust talent pool and that our youth are prepared for meaningful careers and futures. 

Q: What assets, skills and talents will you contribute to the effort?

A: In all of our pro bono engagements, we focus on how we can make a uniquely Nielsen impact through our uncommon skills and expertise. Our global reach and the depth and breadth of our data is one of our key differentiators that we lean on in efforts like these. One of the things that we’re focused on with this initiative is helping to create jobs for young people. In the United Kingdom, we’ve launched an Advanced Apprenticeship program and in Spain and Portugal, we’ve expanded our internship program to take on more interns. We see this project as a great case study for how we can replicate our efforts in Europe around the globe.

Q: What is your #1 CSR prediction for 2015?

A: Innovation is a big one. As the world becomes more digital, capacity-building for nonprofits—and really all organizations—will only become more important. I think we’ll also see more collaboration between companies and nonprofits—or companies alongside nonprofits and governments—to come together in solving the major challenges of the world. No longer will organizations be able to operate in separate silos on initiatives that aren’t integrated. I think we’ll see a big trend towards more interdependence and projects tailored with that principle in mind. For us, we envision that as a connection between Nielsen, our clients, and many other sectors to tackle much larger problems. The biggest and best impact that we can have is collective. 

Interested in learning more about how companies, nonprofits and the public sector can collaborate to use big data for social good? Join the Business Track at our 2015 Conference on Volunteering and Service in October!

Yvonne Siu Turner February 25, 2015