Empower Your Data in 2012

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To compete for scarce dollars, telling your story with effective use of data is critical. Tough times require a razor sharp focus on your processes, procedures, and above all – your bottom line impact.

At CGR, we are often brought in many months (or years!) after a program has been started and asked “well, how’d we do?” only to find that the information needed to answer the question hadn’t been captured. This is a painful discovery. Not only does managing in the dark make it even harder to reach your mission, in today’s environment the case for additional funding to support good work can’t be made without documentation.

Below are a few quick tips to increase the power of your data in 2012:

1.      Think about the end from the start

In order to tell the story of what happened, proper procedures to collect data must be in place at the very beginning. To figure out what to collect, answer a few simple questions:

  • What would you like to be able to say your program accomplishes?
  • What do you wish you knew 6 or 24 months from now?
  • What type of information would be helpful when making decisions about the program?

Envision points in the future and work backward to develop the systems that will get you there. Chances are your organization is filled with data already – take a look around and see what is useful to collect and can help you accomplish these goals.

2.      Don’t count what you don’t use

Collecting and processing data into useful information takes time and resources. Plenty of agencies have multiple funding streams which dictate what data must be collected and reported. Often when the funding expires, data are still being collected as part of standardized procedures. It is a good idea to audit your current data efforts and determine if any of these skeletons are in your closet. Redirect resources to where they add value to your work and don’t be limited to data requested by funders either – use the data collection process to collect details which help inform overall organizational goals as well.

3.      Outputs aren’t always worth the inputs

There is an endless list of things we wish we could know – but the reality is it may just not be possible, realistic, or affordable. Tracking the number of graduates from a job training program is relatively easy, but resources may limit our ability to keep in touch with all graduates over time to determine employment status or to see if their earnings increased. We must be realistic and look for ways to tell our story within the resources we have – perhaps it is tracking a small subset of graduates or partnering with host employment sites to track these details.

Internally, it is also important to weigh the costs and benefits of what we are asking of staff. How much time does it take to complete the forms? Are data demands competing too much with service delivery time? Are the data entry procedures clear and make sense in the real world of practitioners? It is critical to provide consistent training and especially to listen to the people who are tasked with collecting the information. Check-in periodically to address any barriers which prohibit the collection of quality data to avoid making decisions based on bad information.

4.      Numbers are only half the equation

Don’t forget to capture qualitative measures that help tell your story in a compelling and meaningful way. Numbers may help you manage your operation, but rarely will numbers alone provide the connection needed to win over new supporters. Increase the power of your data by coupling it with qualitative measures and antidotes that put a face to the figures such as documenting client testimonials or sketching out a few stories through informal interviews.

5.      Share results and use what you learn

Numbers are meaningless unless used. Some ways to put your data into action are:

  • Establish a feedback loop by making it standard to review data and use the results to inform decisions and planning. Share both the insights and the information with all staff. Collecting information can be tedious—empower your staff to be diligent and consistent by showing them how their work is used.
  • Engage staff in a discussion about the interpretation of your data. They will offer surprising insights—and often suggest better ways to explore the same issues.
  • Look for new opportunities to promote your work outside the organization in a visually creative way to help others understand your mission and why they should be a part of it. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy gives a few examples of how to make your data fun.

With funds tight and competition fierce, improving your organization’s data tracking efforts should be at or near the top of your list of priorities as you plan for the year ahead.  The process might take a little while to implement, but these simple steps will pay you back abundantly in better programs and, perhaps, more money to support your overall mission.