Don’t Let Data Eat Culture for Lunch: Balancing Data Needs with Service Delivery Experience
Updated: Nov 9
We can think of nonprofit data collection and quality service delivery as a seesaw. When you put more weight on the data collection side, it goes down, while the service delivery side goes up. Like a seesaw, data collection and service delivery can get out of balance. We can put too many resources (time, money, mental energy) into one, and the other can suffer.
Balance, however you define it, is paramount.
The Doctor Will Occupy The Same Room As You Now
Imagine you sat in the waiting room for 15 minutes, you sat in an exam room for another 15 minutes, then you saw your doctor for 7 minutes, and the only time they made meaningful eye contact was when they said “hi” and “bye”.
The doc spent most of your visit entering data into the medical records system and updating their billing system.
You sat in the waiting room for 15 minutes, you sat in an exam room for another 15 minutes, then you saw your doctor for 12 minutes, and their full attention was on you.
How are you feeling? How did that happen? Last time we talked about you feeling stressed about work. Do you still feel that way? Is your oldest still in the band? Trombone, right? Are excited about the big sports game this weekend? Please call us in 2 weeks to let us know how you’re feeling.
The outcome of the visits was the same. You get a blood test for X and a prescription for Y. But, your experience was profoundly different. Doctor A is perfectly effective at diagnosing the health issue. Doctor B offers a diagnosis, and treatment, and a personal connection. You recommend Doctor B to your friends because Doctor B makes you feel like you matter.
What does this have to do with nonprofit data collection?
In a previous article, we discussed some basics of nonprofit data collection from a what and how much perspective. What are you doing or achieving? How much? As an organization, it’s your job to decide the outputs and outcomes for which you will collect data. That’s the best data you have to reflect on your performance, to tell your story, to write grant proposals, and etc. However, the outputs and outcomes you track should be limited to the things that matter.
Why not track everything?
First, and most importantly, because humans are not good at multitasking. It’s hard to be fully present with your participants while you are also completing forms and clicking buttons in your tracking system.
Ideally, you wouldn’t treat it like a doctor entering data in a billing system (“skin examination”, “stitches”, “bandages”, “pain medication administered”). While this approach might be used by some doctors, ideally your team can avoid it as much as possible.
If you track too much data, especially data that’s not useful today but might be useful someday, then then your seesaw is getting out of balance. Data collection is overtaking human connection with your participant.
Second, data is only useful if you use it. (Ain’t that some circular reasoning!) It’s okay to collect a modest amount of data that might be useful someday (e.g. a housing program that does a financial literacy assessment), but resist the urge to collect too much.
I managed data for 10+ years at nonprofits. As a service provider, I collected plenty of data that went unused. It never helped us improve our programs or tell our story. While working at a foundation, I tried to limit our data requirements on what really mattered, but I made mistakes. From both perspectives - as a service provider and a funder- everyone is worse off by collecting unused (possibly useless) data.
Focus on the Core, Make Small Changes, and Reflect
So, how do we get the balance right?
Figure out your absolutely necessary data - the key outputs and outcomes you will track. If you use case plans or coaching plans, you probably need those stored somewhere too.
Beyond this necessary core data, consider using small data experiments to identify additional data that might be useful.
If you think that adverse childhood experiences might impact your participants’ likelihood of success, then collect the data and find out. If it matters (i.e. knowing that information helps you improve your program), keep doing it. If it doesn’t, then pitch it.
Make that determination as quickly as possible and move forward.
Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.
countbubble is simple, flexible data collection software for human service nonprofits. Learn how we can help your nonprofit spend less time on data, and more time supporting your community.
Founder, CountBubble, LLC