If you have worked in the realm of nonprofit program evaluation you may be used to the slightly disconcerting experience of being warmly welcomed by about a quarter of those assembled in the meeting room while receiving a combination of frozen half-smiles and the side (or even evil) eye by the other 75 percent. I don’t blame them. According to conventional wisdom, it is likely that you are there to tell them how to do their jobs, add more paperwork to their jobs or cost them their jobs. Luckily, an increased focus on the value of data and how it can help secure funding, motivate donors and highlight program accomplishments has led to a much better understanding of its importance and, in turn, many nonprofit organizations are already collecting information to assess performance and report outcomes.
Maria Townsend is a colleague and friend whom I met nearly a decade ago and have been lucky enough to partner with again on some recent projects. During her years of research experience in both an academic setting and as an independent evaluator and consultant, she has guided many nonprofit programs through the data collection and reporting process, and since I have been after her for some time to write a guest post here I thought that a conversation about using data “for good” (especially as it is the topic of the month for the Nonprofit Blog Carnival) could provide some insights for small to mid-sized nonprofits.
Me: Reporting outcomes is a standard requirement for most funders of late, but many small nonprofits struggle to get the “evidence” that their funders, or donors, or board want to “prove” program effectiveness. Personally, I think that this is when it is best to have some professional guidance – the DIY approach may be too daunting and pull too much time and energy away from the daily operations of an organization with a staff of 10 or less. That said, hiring a research firm to handle all aspects of an evaluation may be a pipe dream for a small nonprofit and even research consultants may be too pricey to serve as a long term solution for a small organization. What is your advice to the small or start-up nonprofit?
Maria: There are low or no cost resources on data collection, survey research and program evaluation for nonprofits online or through national or regional nonprofit associations (American Evaluation Association, Canadian Evaluation Society, The Community Toolbox University of Kansas, Outreach Evaluation Resource Center). The more educated a nonprofit leader is on what they need and what their office is capable of, the better prepared they are to choose someone to assist in designing and implementing an evaluation plan that will meet them where they are. Another option is looking at small grants from funding organizations and foundations that subsidize the building of evaluation capacity within an agency.
Me: Even with an evaluator on board – in house, consultant or pro bono through a capacity building grant – a gap may exist between what a nonprofit collects to measure its program(s) and what data or even what collection instruments a funder requires for reporting purposes. How can the two competing interests be addressed efficiently?
Maria: In these situations, it is important to do a data inventory. Think of it as if you are cleaning out your closets…
Me: As if data collection didn’t already have a reputation for being tedious and overwhelming.
Maria: It isn’t glamorous – but stay with me. Look at what is already hanging in the closet in terms of currently collected data. How can we coordinate what we currently have to meet the new reporting requirements? Do we have a mainstay survey that can be the foundation, the little black dress (or for the fellas, the grey business suit) that you can dress up or pare down based on the occasion. Craft and insert questions to gather additional outcome data or remove items that you don’t need. If you want to take the dress (or suit) to the next level you add something substantial …
Me: Ah, the statement piece… adds pop, shows confidence, represents your style.
Maria: Right –take the data you have already collected to the next level by adding a focus group or site observation that would provide qualitative data that adds context to the quantitative data. Maybe in this closet assessment you find that your wardrobe is out of season or too small – in the same way you may discover that your existing data collection is no longer a good fit for the current reporting expectations and just adding a few “extras” will not cut it. You need to do some serious shopping or in other words, major revisions or additions to the data set. This is the time to get rid of what you will not need anymore, such as surveys that are relics of past funder requirements or from programs that have since changed in scope. This is where you revise what variables you are collecting, from where (intake, assessments, and front line staff notes, supervision reports) to streamline collection processes and data entry. This is also a good time to make note of what needs to be upgraded as far as the data collection plan – moving surveys from paper to web-based platforms, collapsing data collection timelines to be more efficient and determining if staff are getting appropriate training on the process.
Me: How would you advise a client agency wondering how much data is enough data? There always seems to be too little data collected at first, which is often why we are there, but when the wish lists of what they want tracked come out — to use your closet analogy — it’s like going from a sock drawer to a walk-in.
Maria: An evaluation plan is a great help in listing a program’s goals and expected outcomes, paired with indicator statements which offer further clarification by listing the variables to be collected. Some evaluation plans also include the name of the person or persons responsible for collection of particular pieces of data and the preferred time schedule of collection and reporting. This plan can be introduced in phases to lessen the “data shock” associated with collection, entry and storage on a staff new to the process. It also acts a roadmap for the full transition of the collection and reporting process to the organization – from executive leadership overseeing evaluation and research to the line staff collecting data on a daily basis.
Me: What about the nonprofit that has a solid data collection plan in place but no one really knows what to do with the data because of, say…staff turnover or a change in reporting requirements?
Maria: First off, you need to clean it—make sure that the data you have is complete, fill in missing or fix incorrect identification such as names, dates, codes for services and remove duplicate entries into databases. If you have filed hardcopies of the completed forms, you can pull them to double-check any issues with data entry. It is good to have someone on staff who is very detailed oriented to review the data and prepare it for analysis. So, cleaning the data prior to analysis is the first and important step in getting good results.
Next, revisit your evaluation questions and what you said in your proposal or contract. It is easy to be the dog that sees the squirrel and gets running in a different direction on a well-intentioned whim.
Me: I have one of those (dogs that is) – but with him it’s bunnies.
Maria: Keep it simple – what questions did you want to answer (what was the program’s impact, who did we reach, what program components were most effective) and what do the funders want to know? Those should be your priority for data analysis. Answer those questions first and then you can look for other interesting relationships or connections (those squirrels!) that may be helpful for program planning, such as differences in participation rates or outcomes based on sub-groups.
Me: What about the nonprofit that fears the dark side of data? They know they do good work but their reports show that their overall impact is small, or their program benefits are deemed not “important” enough in this time of growing need and declining resources. It is a realistic fear.
Maria: That is why the development and communications/marketing team should be at the table as far as the data collection and reporting process. That is their niche, right?
Me: Right – storytelling is more compelling, not to mention authentic, when there is performance data to back it up. Outputs and outcomes data shouldn’t be trotted out only once a year in a few pie charts in the annual report; it is an integral part of building a market and community engagement strategy. Many variables could look ridiculous when reported out of context, but are valuable as part of a larger set measuring a condition, such as overall health, mobility, academic or vocational achievement or quality of life. Communications professionals know how to use performance data to enrich the story of their nonprofit’s impact. Let them.