Finding Your Data Path to Success, Part 2: What We Learned Along the Way

Mapping where data is stored, along with creating a logic model that shows important outcomes to track, helps your nonprofit focus resources.

Finding Your Data Path to Success, Part 2: What We Learned Along the Way
8 mins read

Nonprofits need to dig deep to understand their current data practices.

In January’s article on Finding Your Data Path to Success, Ken Doane, EVP & Chief Program Officer at the SH Cowell Foundation, offered guidance on how to be successful with your data and data systems.

In Part 2, the creators of the free Making Wise Decisions toolkit — which helps nonprofits find the right data system or optimize what they have in place — offer some practical how-tos based on what they learned after interviewing dozens of nonprofit, vendors, and foundation staff to identify common challenges and the most common, helpful solutions.

When it comes to finding and implementing the right data system, nonprofits need to dig deep to understand their current data practices. This level of organizational self-knowledge is not as easy as most hope but is well worth the effort.

In our research developing the tool, we noticed a few valuable things that self-reflective nonprofits do differently, better enabling them to identify gaps and implement helpful solutions. In particular, they acknowledge the difficulty of navigating change, embrace thoughtful data assessment and planning, and maintain flexibility throughout the process.

Shelve the Shame

If you haven’t wrangled your data into perfection yet, your staff may feel uncomfortable admitting to data practices that often resemble a hodgepodge of band-aid solutions. Consider creating a “data amnesty zone” so staff can share hidden data sources and tools or admit if they’ve been stuffing the data collection and analysis part of their job under the rug.

Nonprofits that successfully transition to a new data system—including client tracking, donor management, curriculum, and even email marketing platforms—ensure that staff feel confident sharing mistakes in order to move on. Assuming there is something “wrong” with your data practices is highly connected to shame and creates a disincentive from frankly sharing needs and talking about what works, but especially about what does not.

Transparency generates trust and can lessen teams’ concerns about adopting new technology of any kind.

Acknowledge Emotion

Though they are talked about as tech tools, data systems have deep connections with culture and emotion. We get attached to what we have, we get scared about what we’ll lose, and we have inferiority complexes about what we don’t know about our data. Allow space for people to share these emotions, and also set them outside the door—literally.

Before meeting with staff, give them small pieces of paper to write down whatever is preventing them from jumping into the work, such as anxiety, fear, distraction, trust, and so on. Crumple up the pieces of paper and put them in a box that stays outside the room.

Be Thoughtful

If you want a change in data practices to have its intended impact, you need to think about the big picture of your organization. One tool to try is a Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT) assessment. This structured process offers you a solid framework for understanding how your nonprofit will approach the project.

To set your project up for success, consider the internal and external factors affecting your ability to better input, aggregate, analyze, and access data. This is especially helpful when you need to partner with an external vendor.

We also found that the most successful nonprofits are thoughtful about what kind of data they capture and how they plan to use it. How can you do this effectively?

  • Go visual. Create a “data map” by drawing things on a dry erase board or moving sheets of paper around on a big sticky wall. Often times, this can be done in one to two hours, and staff are often surprised with how much they know. (We even made a video to help you keep it simple!)
  • Open the black box. The “black box” of data systems doesn’t serve any of your key stakeholders—the nonprofit, vendor, or your funders. The biggest barriers to better understanding infrastructure are usually stories we’ve told ourselves rather than actual technical obstacles. Similar to the data map, teams can quickly explain a system’s design and function if they are set up for the right conversation. “Just tell me how YOU use it,” is often enough to build a helpful picture of key bottlenecks and needs. Doing so builds confidence at defining what needs to come next.

Mapping where your data is stored, along with creating a logic model that shows important outcomes to track, will help your nonprofit focus its resources. Creating these treasure maps means trusting the knowledge lives within your organization and acting on that belief.

Avoid Attachment: Be Flexible

We get attached to systems, but comfort comes with a cost. We’ve seen many nonprofits adopt systems that don’t serve them and then stick with the wrong system out of the inertia or fear of learning something new. Here are some tips to stay flexible as you find your data path to success:

  • Start small and grow as you go. Especially when budgets are tight, it may make the most sense to focus your new data system on a particular program or set of high-priority functions. Once the initial system is in place and working well, build from there.
  • Support the practice shift. Be realistic when building the budget to allow for training and some culture shift. One all-hands meeting isn’t going to cut it, nor will a self-paced webinar. Leverage what already works for your team when it comes to learning new skills and apply those same processes to the adoption of the new data system.
  • Keep minds on the mission. It’s all too easy to lose momentum in the midst of moving to a new data system. Keep your team’s discussion focused on what will be better as a result of the new system, whether it’s greater benefit for clients, better use of staff time, or another mission-critical priority.

All change is hard. But with a bit of forethought, intention, and transparency, your nonprofit can engage the leaders driving your work to mindfully identify opportunities to both create efficiencies and maximize impact.

We hope the tips we shared can help your cause cross the data chasm and bask in the sunshine that is having the right tools to do your work! And we’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on other tips and tactics that have helped you navigate technology-based change in the comments below.

Betsy Block and Corey Newhouse, with the support of the S. H. Cowell Foundation, B3 Consults and Public Profit created Making Wise Decisions, a toolkit with a full suite of ready-to-use tools for any nonprofit looking to up level their data usage.

About the Author

Betsy Block is Founder and Principal at B3 Consults, where she serves lean, ambitious nonprofits seeking growth and strategic direction. She brings all the tools of data & program evaluation in harmony with the heart and intuition-led world of coaching to increase the impact of results-driven organizations.

Corey Newhouse is the Founder and Principal of Public Profit. Corey has a wide range of experience in evaluating mission-driven organizations, including leadership development initiatives, multi-site youth development programs, and policy campaigns. She’s a chapter author in the recently released textbook, Evaluation Failures: 22 Tales of Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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