April 17, 2012
What Is Data?
As we digitize our operations more, we collect more data. Data can be something as basic as the amount of energy your shelter is using, the amount of money you are spending, or the number of women you’ve served in a month. But as our ability to collect more data increases, we must also learn to effectively distill it into information. For example, if you have data showing that you are using more energy in one space than in another, similar-sized space, you might consider auditing the energy use of both spaces. Similarly, while you may know that one shelter serves more women than another, additional data may reveal that it is doing so less efficiently. Learning to think in a data-centric manner will help you achieve your mission better. Although you may think that it’s too much hassle to change the status quo, spending some time to become a data-driven organization will lead to better results.
Storing and Using Data
Your data can, and probably is, everywhere, in every format possible. Your paper files from years ago, videos you took that are still in VHS format, or computer files in a backup drive format that’s no longer even supported. Returning to our earlier example, you almost certainly keep track of how many women come through your doors in a month. Do you keep just paper copies of intake forms? Do you have an intern enter that data into a spreadsheet? Do you then enter that information into a client management database? You are most likely collecting data with all three methods, but they differ in their accessibility and usability for future analysis.
Information that you take down in paper form may be the most secure and straightforward. It will always be there when you need it (barring a fire or some other disaster). You can make notes on it for future reference, and store it in a safe place. But unless it is digitized, you won’t be able to quickly determine trends in a population, like demographics, nor will you be able to tell quickly how often a person sought help or had related needs. Paper records almost always require extra work to make sense of. And unless you’ve made sufficient paper copies and placed them in multiple locations, you can lose everything in a natural disaster. You can, however, make infinite copies of digital data.
Spreadsheets are a slightly better method because they give some insight on the work you do. For budgeting purposes, a spreadsheet allows you to view and plan for funding, but it’s an inadequate tool to understand clients. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t need to perform calculations on the data, it probably doesn’t belong in a spreadsheet. It is, on the other hand, the best tool to determine data relationships. Using our earlier example, you can use it to find out the number of clients served in a shelter per full-time employee (FTE), and use that as a metric to compare the performance between shelters. Without the proper data collected, you would not be able to gauge your performance. Having data in an analyzable form allows you to see gaps in your programming, or ways you can be more efficient in your operations.
Moreover, it is often worthwhile to figure out trends beyond just those required. For example, by charting just the number of requests or visits from discrete clients (as opposed to returning clients), you could see if that was due to population growth, or the cutting of services by local governmental agencies, or just greater awareness due to a new campaign. This is the kind of reporting that decision-makers and funders want to see as you look to deepen your impact.
Data usage for performance measurement is not limited to inputs divided by outputs.
Outcomes like greater awareness and community cooperation can’t always be captured in a single metric. Tools like databases or constituent management systems (CRM) can help you manage relationships and interactions with all your stakeholders. They can also indicate the scale and amount of activity you have within your network of supporters, which you are ultimately trying to grow beyond just numbers and donations.
Common Tools to Collect and Analyze Data
As a nonprofit, you have many tools available to you to collect and analyze data. Here’s an overview of some commonly used ones:
- Database. A database stores information as records, like a digital index card file. Each record can contain as much information as you would like. A database can be customized, like a donor database or a client database. While the complexity, functionality and level of specificity of each database program can differ, the underlying premise of storing data as records remains the same.
- CRM. A customer or constituent relationship management system is a database application that is focused on the relationships and activities by individuals recorded in that system. It gives the user an interface to view and understand the activities and actions of a donor, client, or organization. By tracking phone calls, emails, and meetings with individuals, users can understand and proactively interact with constituents.
- Business Intelligence software. This type of software allows you to analyze data from different sources, including data from online sources, for an overall view of the organization. It is best used when you already have data collected and organized, and are ready to organize it for sharing and analysis.
Next Steps to Be More Data-Driven
We have covered many topics on how to be more data-driven, and many reasons for you to think about your data differently. But if you have limited resources and your staff is overwhelmed, what can you do? Here are some concrete steps we recommend you take:
- Clean house. In order for you to take stock of what you have, you should start thinking about your data as an asset to your organization. It is not just a by-product of your work, but rather the foundation upon which you can do more for your constituents, more effectively. That means you should figure out what data needs to move out of paper forms and convoluted spreadsheets and into databases and CRMs. Your resident “accidental techie” or IT person should be able to guide you through the process because they are probably the ones managing the backup of that data.
- Understand your data. Once all your data is digestible by software, you – in consultation with your stakeholders – should think about what’s most important to them for their work. Is it financial efficiency? Scope of impact? A return on social investment? Understanding these perspectives will help you figure out what is the missing information that can take your fundraising or impact analysis to a different level.
- Make the information compelling. Data tells stories and gives snapshots of your organization. Once you know what you want to know, it’s up to the stakeholders to figure out what is the best way to display that information. Reporting is a function that is built into most data-related software. It could be as straightforward as a bar chart showing raw figures, to more abstract “infographics” that show a variety of facts and figures. The spectrum of complexity in displaying your data is very wide. But using imagery and visuals will make that data more compelling and easier to understand.
Advanced Data Usage
Once you have mastered the fundamentals of data collection and analysis, there are other possibilities in terms of advanced usage. Here are a few examples:
- Dashboarding. A dashboard, like the one in a vehicle, displays information in an easy-to-read format, often from many different sources. These are usually top-level performance indicators, and many CRMs offer customizable dashboard modules for different departments and members. Development staff can focus on funding-related data, in charts and graphs, while operations can focus on staffing and service levels.
- Social analytics. As more data is generated from online interactions, the data from all your Facebook comments and Twitter retweets can be aggregated to understand reach and popular topics. Coupled with more traditional metrics, website visits, and email open rates, social analytics can be a powerful tool to understand your online presence and ways to strengthen it.
- Location and mapping. Nonprofits are beginning to combine location and mapping data to get a view of their reach for both internal and external use. You can represent your client base by using their zip codes and, for example, overlay school districts with the addresses to figure out where best to have an education campaign.
About the Author:
Kevin Lo is a technology analyst for Techsoup. He has been involved with technology in the nonprofit sector for over 10 years, and is now working on TechSoup's Tech Beginner's Guide and Security Corner initiatives. He has an MPA and an MA in International Relations from the Maxwell School in Syracuse University.
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