When data and Nonprofits meet.
Over the last few years, many nonprofits have jumped on the data train. Some for the first time, either through their own efforts or through the coercion of funders, have begun to evaluate and track their data. Others, evaluate project to project, with no interconnectedness between evaluation systems. Others still, are fighting a losing battle and standing their ground, refusing to collect any data at all.
Welcome to nonprofits and data. Many of us who have worked in the sector have watched (with glee I might add) as non-profits finally started using data to tell their stories over the last few years. Generally, in the form of impact statements, these numbers talk about the total clients served, the social return on investment, or other comparable metrics.
Summative Vs Formative Data
Much of the data organizations are using is summative in nature. It talks about what they have done over a time period. It has a discreet beginning and end, and talks about projects AFTER they are finished. It is like analyzing a sports game, after the game, play by play. Summative assessments are also like tests teachers give in schools. They summarize what you know, and how you did.
In data driven organizations and in assessment culture, a different type of assessment is often used. Formative assessment tools, such as those that occur in the middle of something, whether it is a unit of study, staff evaluations, project evaluations are a critical strategy that separate those who lead with data, compared to those who simply follow the pack. What these data focused organizations have learnt, is that data can be used for learning, not just to assess what you have learnt. Let me rephrase. In the sector, we often use data to tell our story to our teams our funders and stakeholders and demonstrate why we are worthy of the dollars granted. One thing few organizations do well, is to use their data to analyze HOW they are doing in the middle of a project, or better yet, when nothing special is going on.
Why would organizations go through the trouble of collecting even more data, particularly data not required by funders? Think of formative data, like a feedback tool. It can be used by staff and leadership to assess how each is doing. It is a learning tool, essential particularly to innovative organizations to see what works best, when and how. It can be used by leadership to assess big picture items, and by staff to assess and take control of their own performance.
What about the cost of collecting data?
This is an argument I get from most of my clients. Here is my canned response if you will.
First and foremost, data collection and analysis need not be expensive. Smart organizations can invest in automated tools that make this easier. Second, what is the cost of the mistakes you may be making? If you never measure, you never know. Third, your costs are only high on the front end. Once you adopt a data centric approach, costs in theory, should go down. Finally, time and time again, in my experience, the organizations who have the best data, get more grants and funding. They can tell their story better, they learn faster from their mistakes and develop overall, better programs and services.
How do I get started using data better?
If you have internal expertise, use it. Talk to individuals who have experience in program design, data design and collection. Join networking groups and communities of practice centered on this. Finally, hire or talk to an expert, internally or externally. Buy them a coffee. Most practitioners will gladly give you some free time.
Most organizations are still not using data as effectively as they can. Those who want to be leaders have discovered the power of data and use it well. Those who don’t risk being left behind in an ever more innovative nonprofit sector.
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Disclaimer: ReimarGroup is a consulting firm focused on organizational sustainability, program design and evaluation. We believe good data makes sense and creates more powerful organizations.