Everyone expects to be able to easily find answers to all of their questions all of the time. 

By Dave Overfelt

Data is the lifeblood of our economy. Whether you are seeking funding, engaging volunteers or donors, or planning your next program or event, you are expected to use data to tell appealing stories. The challenge for nonprofits is that the internet and the massive investment from major tech companies into mobile technology has led many to believe data should be readily available to answer any question they have at any given moment. Prepare yourself!

Data are getting easier to collect

While collecting and dealing with data is challenging, meeting donor and volunteer expectations is getting easier every day. Some data collection tools to automate survey analysis or test messaging can be expensive, but more basic tools for implementing online surveys or visualizing data are frequently cheap or free! If you need to develop, test and refine donor appeals for micro-targeting on facebook, those expensive message testing tools and services may be worth it, but in most cases you can internally develop the skills to work with free data tools.

Plan ahead for collection and analysis

Instead of starting with a massive investment in a data collection and analysis system, you can start simple to build capacity over time. This may seem like a tedious process, but laying out all the steps will help you measure your work. Pick one thing that you want to measure. If you have an important goal for your agency, start with a single desired outcome on the path to that goal. Next, list the resources that will contribute to implementing that activity and achieving that goal, list the specific activities you will undertake, and list the desired measurable outcomes.

Double and triple check your assumptions here before you invest resources in the activity and try to find good evidence supporting the assertion that the activity will lead to the desired outcome. You should also make sure that the money you intend to invest in this activity can be spent in the way you intend to spend it. Sometimes, for instance, grant funds have very specific restrictions or reporting requirements and it would not be good to break funding rules!

Break outcomes into short, medium, and long term to better focus your data gathering and analysis efforts. This planning will help you gather the right information instead of trying to gather all information. Check to make sure the data you are gathering can be analyzed with the tools you have available. You don’t want to buy some really cool messaging tools only to later discover analyzing that data requires extensive consulting time, advanced technology, or even more specialized software.

Finally, make sure to train everyone involved in the process to be sure data is collected consistently. Differences in survey questions, for instance, will change the responses and make it difficult or incorrect to compare the data.

Understand the data

After you have set your goals and collected information, you need to analyze, reflect, and react.

Try first to look for trends. A single data point collected at a single point in time may not tell you very much and even trends over a few data points could be completely random. Looking at data over several weeks, months, or years can help you see whether or not outcomes are headed in the direction you want. With some basic trends you can start testing different outreach or programmatic changes to test what happens.

Proving whether or not a program or activity is accomplishing your goal is more complicated but it can be done. If you found reliable scientific evidence indicating your activity should lead to the desired outcome, all you really need to do is track to see if it is working. If it is not working, talk to the people engaged in implementation to see if you can figure out the breakdown.

It is important at this stage to reflect on your data and any predictive models you may have created. Data never speaks for itself and never tells the complete story, instead, we use data to create and support stories. Does the data seem right? Does it fit your theory of how a program, funding effort, or activity is supposed to work? If something doesn’t seem right, it may not be! On that same note, you shouldn’t doubt information just because it doesn’t fit your expectations. Use the data to keep a conversation going.

A Simple Customer Service Initiative.

Creating a project around improving customer service is a great place to start your work with data. Improving the donor, program participant, or volunteer experience can make your community happier and more engaged, reducing the staff loaf and cost of dealing with all the random frustrations and allowing everyone to focus on activities that drive impact. There are also a wealth of satisfaction surveys already out in the world that you can draw from to create a survey of your own and there are open source (free!) tools you can use to implement and analyze surveys.

Start with a survey of your community to determine where there are pain points in their interactions with with your programmatic or development activities, make some adjustments around those points, and survey again to see if there have been any changes. It may take some time for changes in your activities to reflect changes in attitudes but the pace of such a shift should not deter you from tracking and measuring those changes.

From this simple survey data your staff can begin to create a body of knowledge and experience regarding data collection and analysis. This processes of planning, developing, implementing, analyzing, and adjusting can be replicated across many activities and gets easier as it becomes routine.

Do you have a complicated program? Step back and check if the activities lead to the desired outcomes. Are you spending time writing grants? Gather up some information and check to see if that investment of staff time is leading to positive outcomes central to the mission or burning time that doesn’t help you achieve your core goals.

No matter what you are doing, volunteers, donors, and participants expect to see data the demonstrating that their time and money invested leads where they want. There is no reason to shy away from this expectation, instead, you can follow some simple and consistent steps across all of your activities to make data collection and analysis part of your routine!

Build a routine!