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  • Ryan Brooks

Don’t Let Data Eat Culture for Lunch: Balancing Data Needs with Service Delivery Experience

Updated: 7 days ago

Gather Rich and Helpful Data for your Nonprofit, but Choose Each Data Point with Care

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

Doctor A

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.

Doctor B

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?

A lot.

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.

Nonprofits should not track everything

Sure, most nonprofits need to carefully track outputs, outcomes, client demographics and more. But, they also need to should limit the data they collect.


First, humans are not good at multitasking. It’s hard to be fully present with your participants while you're also completing forms and clicking buttons in data management software.

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 - at least while you are face-to-face with someone in your program.

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.

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.

I managed data at nonprofits for about 10 years. 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 there as well. From both perspectives - as a service provider and a funder- everyone is worse off by collecting unused (possibly useless) data.

Third, the more unnecessary data you have stored, the more you and your clientele have to lose if there is a security breach. Data carries risks and responsibilities, along with the potential benefits your organization can gain from it.

For example, I was recently notified that my private data was potentially compromised at a university I that never attended. My application materials were way more than a decade old.

Keep your nonprofit and your community safer by collecting (and securely storing) only the data you need.

Getting the Data Collection vs Human Connection Balance Right

Focus on Mission Critical Data for Your Nonprofit. Make Small Changes Over Time. Reflect.

So, how do we get the balance right?

Focus On Mission Critical Data

Figure out the data that's absolutely essential for your programs - the key outputs and outcomes you will track. If you use case plans or coaching plans, you probably need those stored somewhere too.

Also, make sure you understand the data your funders require and the data your ideal/target funders require. You'll need that data as well to win funding to pay for your work.

Make Small Changes Over Time

Beyond this necessary core of data, consider using small data experiments to identify additional data that might be useful. Consider collecting that new data with a small random sample of participants.

Reflect on the Data You Collect, Get Rid of Low Value Data

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.

Email us at or sign up for email updates on blog posts, product news, or scheduling a demo.

Founder, CountBubble, LLC

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