5 Tips for Maximizing Impact Through Data
Corporations have long been using data science to maximize efficiencies, but many nonprofits have fallen behind. Whether the cause is a lack of prioritization, expertise or tools — or some combination thereof — we often fail to utilize data effectively. But even with limited budgets, nonprofits simply cannot afford to dismiss the value of data.
Data can be used to inform decision-making, enhance the effectiveness of mission-driven pursuits, become more adaptive and increase impact. And that perception of impact by employees is linked to increased job performance.
According to Sheri Chaney Jones’ book, “Impact and Excellence,” “Data-driven organizations find success with greater speed and efficiency than those organizations that fail to collect data and accurately respond to it.”
Data-driven organizations are also better equipped to build partnerships and attract funding.
The good news is that most organizations collect data. (Yay!) The bad news is that the majority don’t use that data effectively — or sometimes, at all. Sheri Chaney Jones reports that 82% of the social sector organizations have collected data, yet only 23% of those organizations have successfully linked that data to positive outcomes.
Here are a few tips for achieving positive outcomes though data:
1. Assess Only Valuable Data
This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many organizations collect data because it is accessible and easily assessed, but not actually helpful. Researcher and author Mitchel Resnick put it nicely in a recent episode of “Freakonomics,” saying, “What we need to do is to focus more on trying to assess the things we value rather than valuing the things that are easily assessed.”
Here are some examples of valuable data:
- Data that informs ROI-based decision-making
- Data that drives mission-aligned impact by measuring the distinct effectiveness of programs
- Data that highlights opportunities for improvement — including by exposing initiatives that should be eliminated
- Data that outlines progress and aids in goal-setting
- Data that can be used to communicate effectiveness
2. Use Data as a Force for Good
If you’re using data to punish or coerce staff, cut it out! That can have an adverse impact on morale as well as productivity. It often leads to heightened suspicion and conscious resistance. It can also undermine employees’ intrinsic motivation and lead to unethical behavior. So, yeah… Quit it.
3. Collect Quality Data
Data integrity is key! Data is not going to enhance mission-driven impact or inform decision-making if it’s garbage. A few tips for managing quality data:
- Track data consistently. Agree on how measurables are defined, quantified and recorded. (I find the MECE framework helpful in building definitions. MECE stands for Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. It basically means that when categorizing information, there should be no overlaps and all options should be covered. This helps eliminate confusion thereby ensuring greater consistency.)
- Track data in a single location. Tracking a single data point in multiple locations is not only time-consuming, but it inevitably leads to inaccurate data. And please, eliminate data silos! They might seem like a convenient fix, but they also threaten data integrity and inhibit collaboration. (And most importantly, they make me sad.)
- Train employees. Once processes and definitions are clear, that has to be communicated consistently to staff, otherwise data integrity will be an ongoing problem.
4. Involve Others
Get buy-in from employees by including them in strategic conversations and ensuring they see the value in data collection. If staff members understand that data is collected to empower them to enhance impact, efficiency and effectiveness, they’ll be less suspicious and more likely to help. New perspectives are also advantageous, as colleagues might have thoughtful insights about what data could be valuable.
5. Synthesize and Communicate Data
As previously stated, most organizations collect data, but many stop there. Crunching the right numbers is not always regarded as a strategic priority, despite the fact that it directly informs decisions. As a result, resources like time, funding or expertise are limited. But as market researcher Arthur C. Nielsen said, “The price of light is less than the cost of darkness.”
Collecting, synthesizing, analyzing and communicating data might have an expense, but failure to do so could be far more costly. With ROI in mind, identify and invest in the tools and training that will help your organization efficiently assess data and maximize impact.
With the right information, our organizations can become more impactful, adaptive and effective. Sometimes it takes a shift in culture, attitudes and processes to get there — often easier said than done — but it’s worth the effort.
Hilary Stone is the manager of donor stewardship, research, and analytics at The Columbus Foundation where she works to optimize and execute the foundation’s donor recruitment, stewardship, and retention efforts. Hilary has worked at five nonprofits in four states across three regions of the United States. Throughout those moves, her goal has remained constant: to connect organizations and people with the ideas, data and resources they need to maximize their impact.
Hilary has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Susquehanna University and is currently enrolled in Otterbein University’s Master of Business Administration program. She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Ohio Prospect Research Network.