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