Five Steps to Building a Data Driven Nonprofit from the Start

When you’re starting up a new nonprofit, a strategy for impact evaluation can feel like another hurdle in the seemingly endless list of things to worry about or take care of. But, when done correctly, setting up a solid evaluation strategy can be the key to answering a lot of other questions down the line. Here are my top five quick tips to preparing a team or organization for an impact evaluation:

1. Measure what Matters

A lot of things – pressure from funders or board members, challenges when defining your mission, lack of staff capacity – can make data collection and evaluation seem complex and overwhelming. But, when done correctly, the process of figuring out “what matters” is actually an opportunity to unite all of your stakeholders around a clear mission and strategy. Start out by interviewing everyone about what they think the purpose and goals of your program are – share those findings with the group and come to a collective understanding of the 3-5 data points you will use to measure success. Then: educate, educate, educate. All of your staff and stakeholders will need time and training to understand and build those metrics into their daily practice.

2. Believe that Everyone is a "Data Person"

Working at a nonprofit in a program evaluation role, one of my pet peeves is when I’m referred to as the “data person.” I mean, I do love data! But, I’ve been working for years to build a system where everyone has access to, and feels confident talking about data so it does kind of break my heart to have a question kicked to me as “THE data person.” Data should be critical to your organization’s mission and vision. So critical, that everyone should know your primary data points, how they are measured, and where to find them.

3. Create Stories, Not Pie Charts

One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve heard about data is that a fancy pie chart or bar chart will sell a program. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a nice data visualization. But data – especially in the social sector – doesn’t tell a full story. Use data as a jumping off point to talk about your impact in the stories of your clients or as a way to talk about the great improvements and lessons your organization has made. It is not only a more accurate and compelling case for your impact – it will help make data a more approachable and less “scary” part of the work for everyone.

4. Iterate & Evolve

I’ve often seen nonprofits come to a conclusion about what “their” primary data points are and then hold tight to that decision despite findings that indicate they need to go in another direction. Don’t be afraid to change up your measurement strategy as your program model and approach evolves. If you are really learning from what you’re measuring, you should find out somewhere along the way that you are missing something or measuring the wrong thing. It is fine to evolve your data strategy as your organization grows and matures. And, don’t be afraid to talk about this evolution to funders or other external people. It will only make your organization look smarter.

5. Listen & Learn

Too often, program evaluators or nonprofit leadership disregard the voices of staff or program participants when creating or modifying their data strategy. But, even the most eloquently planned logic models can be improved by the folks on the ground doing the work and participating in programs. These are the people who are “living” the data points and often they will see things or ask questions you hadn’t thought of. Build in time to hear these questions and stories and make sure you are intentionally integrating them into your data strategy.

Simple, huh? Well, ok not so much. But, following these guidelines should help you to create a healthy data culture and a solid impact strategy. Of course, there will be challenges along the way. People take time to learn new things or a new way of doing old things. Many people get a lump in their throat the second they hear the words “data” or “impact.” But with strong leadership and solid communication & collaboration, building this culture is possible at any size organization.

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