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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

Director at Ploughshare
Ploughshare's Director has worked in community development, local government and corporate management for over thirty years both in New Zealand and throughout the developing world. He brings a wealth of expertise in fundraising, governance, strategic planning, change management, leadership development and coaching, advocacy and public communication.
Steve Tollestrup

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