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The value and limits of data

Leveraging Data

Col­lect­ing and record­ing data is a grow­ing expec­ta­tions of many fund­ing providers espe­cial­ly cen­tral and local gov­ern­ment.

Con­tin­ued fund­ing by these providers is tied to an empir­i­cal mea­sure­ment of out­comes. There are two ways of look­ing at data. The first thinks data is king, and you can mea­sure every­thing if you have the right ques­tions and the right data. The oth­er is less stri­dent about it and agrees that data is use­ful but that the focus on data min­imis­es the human and exis­ten­tial impact that is hard to mea­sure.

The prac­ti­cal real­i­ty for most small and medi­um scaled NGO’s is that try­ing to use data in any sys­tem­at­ic way to inform their work feels too cum­ber­some and cost­ly to gather/analyse and they end up frus­trat­ed, bogged down and the good and impor­tant inten­tion gets frozen.

I’d like to sug­gest three ideas to get back on track

1. Just Start Somewhere.

For those of you begin­ning to con­sid­er how your organization’s data can be used more com­pre­hen­sive­ly, the impor­tant thing is to take the ini­tial steps for­ward. Get your data col­lec­tion sys­tems in order. I’d sug­gest that you start with a real­ly sim­ple sys­tem called RBA or results based account­abil­i­ty. It is sim­ple and intu­itive. You can find more about incor­po­rat­ing and using an RBA sys­tem here.

2. Measure Some Things.
Don’t Measure Everything.

There is often per­ceived pres­sure from fun­ders to pro­vide a con­stant stream of data to demon­strate our agen­cies val­ue. Data is a tool to help us learn, not sim­ply a means for val­i­dat­ing our work. It can show us what is work­ing, where we have gaps and which things that need to be improved. The right data helps us go beyond our intu­itive sense of, “I think we’re hav­ing an impact.” So we right­ly col­lect data to help us make sense of our orga­ni­za­tions’ work and show our impact.

Don’t mea­sure every­thing. Begin with just a few sim­ple things. For exam­ple the num­ber of peo­ple record­ing the ben­e­fit of a bud­get­ing ser­vice, young peo­ple enter­ing and com­plet­ing a fit for work train­ing mod­ule etc.

Keep it sim­ple to start with.

3. Remember Data Is Only Part of the Picture

Remem­ber that data is just one mech­a­nism to under­stand suc­cess, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to social sci­ences. When we are deal­ing with human lives, data alone doesn’t tell the whole sto­ry because it doesn’t cap­ture all the nuances of the human sto­ry.

While there is recog­ni­tion in the non­prof­it sec­tor that demon­strat­ing impact is impor­tant, and thus data is need­ed to do so, there can be an accom­pa­ny­ing frus­tra­tion that organ­i­sa­tions are pushed to be too out­come-ori­ent­ed and miss some of the beau­ty of their mis­sions in action.

We use data to hold our­selves account­able to the par­tic­i­pants we serve and the peo­ple who have invest­ed in us and to our­selves. How­ev­er data alone in heard num­bers is not enough. We need the bal­ance of sto­ries, case stud­ies and vignettes from our par­tic­i­pants. This is how trans­late the black-and-white nature of the num­bers into con­texts that have mean­ing for the audi­ence. Said more for­mal­ly qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive research should work togeth­er to demon­strate the effec­tive­ness of our agency best.


Ploughshare can pro­vide a three hour RBA work­shop and ongo­ing sup­port for your organ­i­sa­tion

Steve Tollestrup
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