As we digitize our operations more, we collect more data. Data can be something as basic as the amount of energy your shelter is using, the amount of money you are spending, or the number of women you've served in a month. But as our ability to collect more data increases, we must also learn to effectively distill it into information. For example, if you have data showing that you are using more energy in one space than in another, similar-sized space, you might consider auditing the energy use of both spaces. Similarly, while you may know that one shelter serves more women than another, additional data may reveal that it is doing so less efficiently. Learning to think in a data-centric manner will help you achieve your mission better. Although you may think that it's too much hassle to change the status quo, spending some time to become a data-driven organization will lead to better results.
Your data can, and probably is, everywhere, in every format possible. Your paper files from years ago, videos you took that are still in VHS format, or computer files in a backup drive format that's no longer even supported. Returning to our earlier example, you almost certainly keep track of how many women come through your doors in a month. Do you keep just paper copies of intake forms? Do you have an intern enter that data into a spreadsheet? Do you then enter that information into a client management database? You are most likely collecting data with all three methods, but they differ in their accessibility and usability for future analysis.
Information that you take down in paper form may be the most secure and straightforward. It will always be there when you need it (barring a fire or some other disaster). You can make notes on it for future reference, and store it in a safe place. But unless it is digitized, you won't be able to quickly determine trends in a population, like demographics, nor will you be able to tell quickly how often a person sought help or had related needs. Paper records almost always require extra work to make sense of. And unless you've made sufficient paper copies and placed them in multiple locations, you can lose everything in a natural disaster. You can, however, make infinite copies of digital data.
Spreadsheets are a slightly better method because they give some insight on the work you do. For budgeting purposes, a spreadsheet allows you to view and plan for funding, but it's an inadequate tool to understand clients. A good rule of thumb is that if you don't need to perform calculations on the data, it probably doesn't belong in a spreadsheet. It is, on the other hand, the best tool to determine data relationships. Using our earlier example, you can use it to find out the number of clients served in a shelter per full-time employee (FTE), and use that as a metric to compare the performance between shelters. Without the proper data collected, you would not be able to gauge your performance. Having data in an analyzable form allows you to see gaps in your programming, or ways you can be more efficient in your operations.
Moreover, it is often worthwhile to figure out trends beyond just those required. For example, by charting just the number of requests or visits from discrete clients (as opposed to returning clients), you could see if that was due to population growth, or the cutting of services by local governmental agencies, or just greater awareness due to a new campaign. This is the kind of reporting that decision-makers and funders want to see as you look to deepen your impact.
Data usage for performance measurement is not limited to inputs divided by outputs. Outcomes like greater awareness and community cooperation can't always be captured in a single metric. Tools like databases or constituent management systems (CRM) can help you manage relationships and interactions with all your stakeholders. They can also indicate the scale and amount of activity you have within your network of supporters, which you are ultimately trying to grow beyond just numbers and donations.
As a nonprofit, you have many tools available to you to collect and analyze data. Here's an overview of some commonly used ones:
We have covered many topics on how to be more data-driven, and many reasons for you to think about your data differently. But if you have limited resources and your staff is overwhelmed, what can you do? Here are some concrete steps we recommend you take:
Once you have mastered the fundamentals of data collection and analysis, there are other possibilities in terms of advanced usage. Here are a few examples:
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