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  • Ryan Brooks

How to Foster a Data-Driven Culture at Your Nonprofit

Updated: Feb 22

Building a Data-Driven Culture in Your Organization: 4 Keys for Staff Engagement and Buy-In

In many organizations, there comes a point when you realize that something about your culture isn’t quite right. Now, that could be a million different things, but here, we are going to talk about a culture of data. Many human services nonprofits, perhaps even yours, do great work with limited resources for data infrastructure, data collection, and data-informed decision making. Yet, there will come a time when you realize that your organization can do even more.

This post will help you understand why you need to build a data culture at your nonprofit and how to do it. 

Why Nonprofits Should Build a Data Culture

There are two reasons that it’s critical for your organization to have a data-driven culture. 

First, and most importantly, collecting and using data effectively can drive organizational success forward, and it will help your nonprofit make better decisions. Data can help you make decisions like:

  1. where to expand your services

  2. how to invest your limited resources

  3. which skills your staff members need to be successful

  4. where to do more community outreach 

In short, data can  inform your decision-making to make your nonprofit stronger, more effective, and more closely aligned with your mission. That’s the whole ballgame, right? 

Second, having a data-driven culture can help you tell a good story. Data adds texture, color, and detail to the story of what you achieve and your overall impact. We all love a good story about a successful student or a stable job. But, without data, a story of success might feel like just one story, not part of a larger picture. Data helps you place your story in a larger context and helps people see how your work matters.

Telling stories well can propel your nonprofit forward, and data-infused story-telling can help you win grants proposals, convince donors to invest, and impress your board.

What Prevents Nonprofits from Building a Data-Driven Culture?

It is rarely easy to build a data-driven culture. There are lots of reasons a nonprofit might struggle (or resist) doing so. 

First, and obviously, lack of resources. It takes time, money, training, software, planning, and more to make data a high priority and integrate throughout your work. If your nonprofit wasn’t born with a data-driven culture, then adopting one requires an investment of precocious resources.

Second, some staff might be reluctant to collect (even more) data - perhaps because they feel they lack time, resources, or training. They might also be concerned that a focus on data will take focus away from your mission. The belief that “Our people are not numbers” comes from genuine care for your mission and community. Most people who work in nonprofits don't want low pay, long hours, and high stress to ultimately become data processors. They want (and deserve!) work that's fulfilling and meaningful.

Finally, fear is powerful. Fear of change. Fear of being discovered as ineffective. Fear that “I can’t learn a new way”. Fear that a focus on data will change your culture in undesirable ways. This fear can exist at every level of an organization. A program director might be fearful of collecting (more) data because they are afraid of the story it will tell.

  • What if our most important program isn’t serving enough people to justify the cost?

  • What if it is not effective? 

These fears are reasonable. That's why it's important for leaders to build a culture that embraces all data - the good and the bad - because you know it can help you achieve your purpose as a nonprofit.  

How Nonprofits Can Build a Data-Driven Culture

Here are four strategies to help you build a data culture.

1. Get the Team Involved 

The first step to building any data-driven culture is to start with your whole team - anyone and everyone who should have a role in collecting, analyzing, or using data. It can feel scary and frustrating when a boss suddenly says “we need to start this new thing”. To overcome that, bring your staff along, invite them in, and lead with transparency. 

Start by sharing the two critical reasons to have a data culture (above): (1) so you can be the best organization you can be, and (2) to help you tell good stories. 

Next, invite your team to brainstorm how to do what really matters.  Ask your team for their ideas with questions like:

  • What are some quick wins or creative ways to start collecting data if you haven’t yet?

  • If you have data, how can we start sharing and using that to make the organization better?

It’s essential that you listen to your team and incorporate their ideas into your decisions. The best way to start building your nonprofit’s new data-driven culture is to work collaboratively

It’s critical for everyone to understand that this is not a one-time conversation. This is an ongoing, sustained conversation that happens in large groups and small groups; during staff meetings and one-on-ones. 

This may take a while and not everyone will jump on board immediately. But, if you are to be successful in the long run, then you want everyone to feel invested in the process. 

2. Celebrate the Good and the Bad

When you are in the process of building a data culture, it becomes really important to celebrate and share the data, and how it is being used, within your teams. 

Take time to celebrate the good, such as creating dashboards that help you track service usage or evaluative data that shows a program is effective. Everyone likes recognition for their good work.

But also celebrate the bad. Seriously. Celebrate the bad.

When program numbers are down or client satisfaction is low - celebrate that you found it. You celebrate it because now you can do something about it

Share at staff meetings or organization-wide emails the good and the bad, then develop solutions to make things better. Maybe you do need to close a program because that staff member’s time can be better used elsewhere or maybe you find a fix to turn things around. Either way, a data culture uses all data to improve - that includes the good and the bad.

3. Use Data to Make Decisions

Here's a fast route to frustrating your staff: Make them collect a mountain of data and never use it to make decisions. Why bother collecting all of this data if it is just going to be ignored? 

I once saw an example of this at a nonprofit that received funding for a non-crisis phone line. It was for people who might be lonely or need someone to talk to. This seemed like a great idea. But, the data showed it wasn’t working. Very few people called the line, even after lots of marketing effort. The people who called often had to be transferred to a true crisis line.

The numbers suggested it was not serving a need in the community, yet it continued much to staff’s frustration (not to mention time and effort).

The lesson here is simple. When you have data that shows something isn’t working, then act. If you have data that says there's way more need for one of your services, then act. Otherwise, staff won’t believe you are a data-driven organization.

4. Align Data with Budgets and Planning

Using data to drive decisions is the first step to building your data-driven culture. Next, you'll need to align your data-focused work with your budgeting and planning processes to make changes in your organization sustainable. Your organization might do quarterly planning, annual planning, long-range strategic planning, or all of the above. Your data-driven nonprofit will need to regularly audit and evaluate your work based on the data you have. This includes data on program effectiveness and efficiency, demographics of your participants, demographics of the population you wish to serve, and so on. 

How to Get Started with a Data-Driven Culture

It takes resources to get started, but your initial investment can be small and it does not necessarily require money.

There are two things you can do to get started immediately.

1.Start by asking your team to identify one simple question about your work and the data you need to answer it. Focus on getting a quick win.

It should be easy, concrete, and something you can complete in a week or two. For example:

We want to expand our food pantry hours. What days and hours would be best?

You could survey your existing pantry clients who stop by, call a few more who didn't show up, and even ask a few dozen people in your target area what they think.

Don't make it complex or hard to get an answer quickly. For example:

We want to know if virtual employment training leads to higher wage growth in 12 months compared to in person employment training.

You can work your way up questions like this. You'll wait forever to answer this type of question, and your answer might be "we're not sure" if you don't have enough data. That won't help your staff buy in to the data-driven culture.

2.Analyze some of your existing data and present the findings to your team.

You probably have data that you're not maximizing. Maybe you collect it for a funder or you collect it because you've always done things that way (and you're not sure why)

You can do some basic demographic analysis. Are members of certain groups (race, gender, family status) :

  • more likely to receive your services?

  • more likely to achieve a successful outcome in one of your programs?

  • more likely to drop out?

  • more likely to be rent-burdened?

You can use program data to look for trends or hot-spots:

  • What days of the week or month was a service busiest in the past 3 months?

  • What is the average amount of cash assistance you provide for overdue utility bills?

  • What month(s) have the highest demand for financial assistance?

Any lessons or insights you learn can be shared with your team and help them see the value of data in your organization.

Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.

 countbubble is case management simplified. We can help your nonprofit master data collection and reporting. Email us  or sign up for email updates on blog posts, product news, or scheduling a demo.

Founder, CountBubble, LLC

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