Nonprofit Data Collection: Make Space for Human Connection
Updated: Nov 9
Tracking data at your nonprofit can be time consuming and frustrating. It can be hard to make space for genuine human connections when every breath and every keystroke is a unit of work that must be recorded.
Nonprofits need to record outputs and outcomes, demographics and goals achieved, but some mission focused activities don’t (and maybe shouldn't) fall into any of those buckets. It's important for nonprofits to make space for staff to breathe so they can connect with people more completely. Sometimes, that means not focusing on data.
There are a few ideas about how to make space for human connections at the end of this post.
I’m Angry. I’m Gonna Kill Him
The 2nd floor hallway was cramped on a good day. It was maybe 5 feet wide and long enough to accommodate a dozen small chairs lined along the wall. That hallway was our only waiting room.
Every morning, people filled those chairs and waited for their turn to access our food pantry. When it was busy - which it always was near the end of the month - the chairs filled up and people stood (or sat) on the stairs as well.
My office sat at the end of that hallway waiting area. I greeted as many people as I could while continuing with my work, but I’m not particularly friendly or outgoing.
One day, after that pantry rush was over, a man in his 50s plopped down in the chair by my desk. He had a plastic shopping bag in his hands and was dressed black in athletic gear. We’ll call him Mr. J. I’d seen Mr. J. many times, but we’d only ever said hello.
The first words out of Mr. J's mouth were “I’m angry” in his scratchy voice.
Let’s back up a little...
I’m not a social worker. I do budgets and data and strategic planning. At the time, my most important task was fixing printer jams. I was not well equipped to help Mr. J. work through his anger and whatever problem was driving it.
Our conversation when something like this:
Mr. J.: I’m angry
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. Why are you angry?
Mr. J.: I’m gonna kill him.
A useful bit of context here is that Mr. J. had actually killed someone many years prior, went to prison, and was released. He told me about it during this same conversation.
Me: Who are you going to kill?
Mr. J.: My landlord. I’m gonna kill him.
Mr. J. lived in a rooming house. A rooming house is pretty much what you'd expect. A landlord would convert a house into a lot of single room ‘apartments’ and the tenant would rent a room by the week. Rooming houses are crowded, have shared bathrooms, and are generally not great places. But, they are a place that low income people can live when there no other options.
Me: Why would you do that?
Mr. J.: He took my money.
Me: What do you mean?
Mr. J.: I’m gonna kill him.
Me: Don't do that Mr. J. We can figure this out.
To be honest, I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation went. Mr. J calmed down after a 15 or so minutes. He came in hot, but he was just venting. He needed someone to talk with, and he knew we cared.
Mr. J. did not kill his landlord or move out.
As you can imagine, the first thing I did was record a bunch of data in our data system...
Wait. No. I didn’t do that. That wasn’t even a thought in my mind. I never wrote down that conversation (until now) or recorded time or outputs.
Why not track it?
We recorded lots of data that was highly relevant to what we wanted to achieve as an organization. But, that conversation and many others by our staff weren’t quantified even though they were the epitome of our mission.
That conversation was just part of who we were. We wanted to be welcoming, open, and not driven by maximizing "the numbers". Some things we did weren't tied to a specific funding source and couldn't go on a bar graph for our annual report. The organization made time and space for us to have interactions with no measurable output or outcome.
Making Space for Data Collection and Away from It
How can your nonprofit make space for making human connections that aren't about data? Your staff needs to understand what is required of them and why. Below are a few ideas to get you started.
Ensure everyone on your team understands what you absolutely must track and who you are tracking it for.
This sets the boundaries for what's required, and it helps staff understand the implications of not tracking certain data.
For example: We track evictions prevented, time spent on housing coaching, and housing placements for our State grant. We track military experience and eviction history because we are want to understand if needs are changing. We track pantry meals because our donors like to see big numbers.
If you track time for HR or funding purposes, make it clear how much time staff are expected to record weekly or monthly.
This gives staff an idea of how much space room the have. Maybe it's none, but it's best to be clear about that.
Identify work that your staff should not do & give the reasoning for it.
For example, if a person in your housing program comes to you with a childcare crisis, can they engage with this issue, or do they need to only provide a referral?
Provide examples of when tracking data is not required & give the reasoning for it.
Providing examples with reasoning gives your staff the ability to make good judgment calls in the moment.
For example, if a person in your housing program comes to you with a childcare crisis, do you record the time you spend working on that or not? Why?
Find flexible funding from individual donors or foundations
I know. I know. This is so much easier said than done. My old organization, the one that allowed us to have lots of untracked interactions, prioritized flexible funding from foundations and donors. It worked for us. It made the organization a great place to work and allowed us to focus on our mission in a different way.
The purpose of nonprofit work and the reasons nonprofits exist can sometimes be hard to quantify in data. Nonprofits need to track their work and demonstrate they are making people and communities better. But, if we focus too much on data collection - and not enough on the reasons we are collecting it - then we lose the opportunity to connect and to embrace the mission...the “why” of it all.
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Founder, CountBubble, LLC