Nonprofits That Use Data Well Think It Through Carefully and Actively Involve Employees by Nicole Wallace | The Chronicle of Philanthropy

By Nicole Wallace

Set concrete goals

 

Before nonprofits can start measuring results, they need to be clear about what they’re trying to achieve, says David Hunter, an evaluation expert and author of Working Hard & Working Well: A Practical Guide to Performance Management.

 

Unfortunately, he says, most nonprofit mission statements are abstract and little more than platitudes, so a lot of groups need to craft more precise ones. “If you look at the highest-performing nonprofits in America, they all have crisp, clear, nonsentimental, businesslike mission statements,” says Mr. Hunter. “You know immediately, ‘OK, if I make an investment in this organization, I know what I should be getting in terms of results.'”

 

Then charities need to determine steps to take to achieve that well-defined mission. Keep the number of goals manageable, he advises: “If you’re working on more than three or maybe four goals at any given time, all that will mean is that you won’t achieve any of them very well.”

 

Find the right expertise

The Centering Healthcare Institute, a nonprofit that developed an approach that more than 200 health clinics use to provide expectant mothers prenatal care as a group, knew it needed extra help to design procedures and a system to collect data from those sites.

 

But finding a data-systems expert isn’t easy, says Colleen Senterfitt, the organization’s chief operating officer. “There’s not an Angie’s List for this,” she says. “I used to say, ‘I think I’d have an easier time finding somebody who could get me a spaceship to the moon.'”

 

Still, Ms. Senterfitt is glad she took the time to find someone who could guide the organization through the process. She thinks too many nonprofits dive immediately into discussions about the software.

“Finding the right people is probably the bigger challenge than the right platform,” she says. “We could have used a number of brands and have been successful.”

 

Involve employees

Change is always hard, so it’s crucial to take the time to explain why measurement is important and seek input from the people who will collect the data, says Sandra LaFleur, an associate vice president for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

 

“If you don’t have everybody’s support, the resistance will kill you later on,” she says.

 

 Whenever the youth organization adds new features to its data-management system, it tests the changes with a small number of affiliates before delivering them to its entire network. The tests take time and add to the cost, but what the organization learns makes the system stronger, says Ms. La¬≠Fleur: “Understanding the reality of people on the ground is critical if you want to make something stick.”

 

Ask tough questions

Nonprofits need to resist the temptation to just measure activities they know are going well, says Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of Crittenton Women’s Union, a charity in Boston that helps women and their families achieve economic independence. The greatest potential for improvement lies in collecting and analyzing data about programs that are struggling.

 

Crittenton runs several low-cost apartment buildings where it also provides social services to help residents become self-sufficient. Several years ago, when the organization examined rent collection at a building for young mothers who had been homeless, it found that only 30 percent of residents were paying their rent on time and that some had fallen several months behind.

 

“We kept collecting that data, and it was terrible,” says Ms. Babcock.

 

Eventually the organization changed how it collected rent, and managers worked with employees to help them understand that clients’ making timely rent payments was an important step toward learning how to live independently, which led to better collection rates.

 

Says Ms. Babcock: “We had to get the staff who were working with them very, very closely to stop feeling like, ‘I’m being mean to them.'”

 

Celebrate success

It’s important to share results with employees and recognize progress, says Ms. Babcock.

 

Crittenton holds an annual all-staff meeting to talk about program data, and the organization displays large “bragging boards,” signs that trumpet program results, through¬≠out its offices.

 

Being able to quantify the difference their work makes, says Ms. Babcock, “is just very powerful within the organization, motivating staff and clients.”

 

Make time for reflection

Data collected in early rounds often lead to more questions, says Maggie Grieve, director of Success Measures, a service of NeighborWorks America that helps other charities document their impact. She says the best organizations think about what the numbers mean and take what they learn to tweak their measurement practices.

 

“They’ve asked questions of the data,” she says. “They’ve said, ‘I wish I knew this'” and then added new questions into the next round of data collection. “It adds another layer.”

 

Don’t go overboard

Being a data-driven organization requires discipline, says Sam Cobbs, chief executive of First Place for Youth, in Oakland, Calif., which helps young people who are leaving the foster-care system. He says charities must restrict their data collection to what they really need to improve programs, rather than indulge staff members’ curiosity.

 

To guard against the lure of overmeasurement, First Place conducts time studies to monitor how much time employees spend collecting and recording data.

 

Information is important, but ultimately nonprofits need to be in the business of serving clients, not measuring themselves, says Mr. Cobbs. “Data can sometimes be like money,” he says. “The more you have, the more you want, and you may not be spending all that you’ve got right now.”

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