Data Culture: Is It Working for You, or Are You Working for It?

by Abe Lee

The private (or “for profit”) sector understands the value of data and has been using it to define product offerings in marketing campaigns, improve customer experiences, and optimize operational and business performance. The nonprofit sector is catching on as well. Tris Lumley found in 2013 that “75 percent of charities measure some or all of their work, and nearly three-quarters have invested more in measuring results over the last five years.”

The only problem is that, though data is becoming a valued commodity for the nonprofit sectors, many do not fully understand what that value is. In a survey of over 450 nonprofit professionals, respondents “indicated that they weren’t confident in the effectiveness of utilizing their data. Only 6 percent of respondents said they felt they were effectively using the available data at their disposal. Thirty-three percent indicated they weren’t using data effectively or at all.[1]”

So where is the disconnect? Why are nonprofits focused more on working to create a data culture instead of making the data culture work for them? Different commentators and writers have helped identify a number of potential considerations for nonprofits wanting to focus on creating an effective data culture. Here, I’m focusing on one.

Kathleen Kelly Janus states that the first step in making this transformation is to “be clear about outputs vs outcomes… organizations must do a better job of distinguishing between outputs (how many people are participating in their programs) and outcomes (how their programs are actually changing lives for the better).” A nonprofit that wants to create a data culture that works for them, versus working for it, must take into consideration the ultimate “so what” question regarding the data captured.

The only change I would make to the above is that steps taken by an agency that wants to move towards an effective data culture need to be clear about outputs AND outcomes. It may seem like a semantic distinction, but it is a significant one. Any solution implemented cannot view the collection of data as pitting outputs against outcomes, but must rather view the two as complementary of each other.

The steps you take don’t need to be big. They just need to take you in the right direction.
— Jemma Simmons, Marvel's Agents of Shield


Any solution must provide a structure that makes it possible to capture a depth and breadth of data to effectively and accurately conduct analysis of program outcomes and efficacy. Providing a model that allows for the capture of longitudinal data at the macrolevel nourishes the outcome analysis required by funders and advocates alike.

At the same time, a solution must provide access to information at the microlevel. The data model must create relationships across time and elements so that these can provide enough information to drive better informed decisions and actions. The solution must be able to present a combination of multiple factors like the history of physical and substance abuse to drive decisions regarding the safety of children or identify community factors (such as social and economic environment) to determine potential health considerations to a beneficiary or simply provide the context to enhance service delivery instead of focusing simply on capturing data.

In other words, a data culture shift requires a solution that makes data work for you rather than make you work for your data. Nonprofits and NGOs must focus relentlessly on driving impact, whether they are fighting to improve education and skill development, child protection and human trafficking survivor success, gender equality, or health and well-being. The private sector has been reaping the benefits that data and digital transformation brings, yet for many nonprofits these innovations have seemed out-of-reach. At Diona we understand the unique challenges—and opportunities—facing nonprofits. That’s why nonprofits have turned to Diona to provide simple, affordable mobile solutions to manage all aspects of their client service delivery and achieve vast improvements in worker productivity, client success tracking, AND program measurement and results—using the power of data.

[1] “The State of Data in the Nonprofit Sector.” | |



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