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First-hand tips for a data-first approach

As the CEO of The Gathering Place, the Brunswick-based student mentoring and Christian leadership development organization, Lucas Ramirez spent the past two years helping lead his people – including hundreds of volunteer program administrators – to create and execute a new data-first process for measuring impact and making decisions.

“The Gathering Place has a nearly 40-year legacy, and we know it works – but only through anecdotes,” said Ramirez. The question, he said, is whether they could demonstrate their impact statistically as well. “When you combine both of those things, you have a powerful brand story to share not just with your volunteers and the people you’re trying to serve, but also your funders.”

At GCN’s funder roundtable last month, held at the Golden Isle Career Academy in Brunswick, GCN Senior Consultant Elizabeth Runkle welcomed more than 60 professionals from the Coastal nonprofit community to hear from Ramirez and his team, presenting practical lessons in prepping and executing a data-based measurement initiative. Also on hand were three local funders – Jeff Barker of St. Marys United Methodist Church Foundation, Virginia Brown of the United Way of Coastal Georgia, and Paul White of the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation – speaking to the value of evidence-based results measures.

In his presentation, The Gathering Place CEO shared ten tips for leaders aiming to start a data-based measurement initiative in their own organization, assisted by Associate Director of Programs Sara Brown.

No. 1: Define what you want to measure.
“You have to start with what you want to measure, or you won’t have any foundation for designing the tools,” said Ramirez. For The Gathering Place, that meant developing a Theory of Change for the organization, which he describes as a formula for the organization: “What are the inputs into your organizational ecosystem? What are your long-term and short-term outcomes, on the individual level and the community level?”

To develop their Theory of Change, they employed the help of GCN’s Runkle, and spent several months in conversation with staff and board to figure out the formula that aligned the who (students, community partners, educators, and volunteer mentors) and the how (their programs) with the results they aim to produce (spiritual progression in young people).

No. 2: Build buy-in.
Effective measurements require people from across your organization to take part – most notably in collecting data, but also in using it to make decisions. “That represents a significant culture change,” said Ramirez. “You can’t think that people are just going to hop on board.”

To get buy-in from everyone, Ramirez and his team consulted a guide from Harvard’s John Kotter, author of Leading Change. One of the key steps is to build a guiding coalition: a group of enthusiastic supporters who will serve as the voices for the new project among staff, board, and any volunteers who will be helping implement it.

As one of those guiding coalition members, Brown was responsible for getting 140 volunteer group leaders to add data collection to their roster of duties. She reported that “the vast majority” of her program leaders were quick to catch on to the value of data collection, but others required convincing: “One of the biggest things you can do is to hear out their concerns and really invest in the relationship. I had to make sure they understand that they can trust me, the organization, and the process, and that what we’re doing is ultimately for the benefit of the students.”

No. 3: Use outside help.
Besides bringing in expertise that you don’t have on-hand, an outside consultant can provide a clear picture of the organization as a whole, identifying what works and what needs work.  “Without outside help, what you tend to produce is a reciprocal feedback loop,” said Ramirez. “You keep echoing the thoughts you already have: ‘We’re pretty good, aren’t we?’ ‘Yeah, we’re great!’”

No. 4: Expect trial and error with your measurement tools.
The “nets” you use to gather data must be carefully designed, said Ramirez, but it’s hard to know ahead of time exactly how they’ll work in the real world: “Our first iteration was way too long. The second iteration, which we’re on now, is much shorter, but it still isn’t hitting some of the markers we want to.”

The science of designing survey questions is one kind of expertise you may need to find outside of the organization. Ramirez pointed to ready-made evidence-based tools created by scientists that can be sourced online and adapted, but said that custom-made tools might also be required. Brown suggests starting with a focus group: “If we had started it on a smaller scale, we would have had a sharper, more effective tool when it came time to roll it out for everybody.”

No. 5: Go digital from the beginning.
A digital data-gathering system – like a web-based survey, rather than paper surveys – can save the considerable time and effort it takes to record data in a computer. “If you can find a tool in which the collection and storage systems speak to each other, then you’re really cooking,” said Ramirez.

The cost of technology might seem outsized, but can be minimized with a little forethought; for instance, a single tablet can be easily passed among a group of survey-takers. And going digital from the beginning is best because, as Brown pointed out, people who start with a paper system will often insist on sticking with a paper system.

No. 6: Consider the costs.
Everything has a cost, from fees for data storage to contracts for consultants to the time and effort it takes to survey people. It pays to consider them all ahead of time and figure where you can save. Going back to the paper-versus-digital question, Brown revealed that it cost them $450 to produce paper copies for a single survey. “Do that two or three times a year, and it adds up quickly,” she said. “You can buy a lot of tablets for that price.”

No. 7: Stay balanced – don’t let structure kill your life.
“This data project moves the organization toward structure, but with the ultimate goal of getting to more life,” said Ramirez. Taken too far, however, it can stifle the spirit that animates your people – the desire to make an impact on people. “Every time you talk about the data, it’s important to remind people about why you need it – to cast the vision.”

No. 8: Handle data carefully.
Data is meaningless if it isn’t collected and transmitted with integrity. “You could have the most sophisticated process and conversation possible, but if the data is incorrect, then you’ve fumbled the football on the one-yard line,” said Ramirez. Sensitive demographic information can also leave your beneficiaries (and your organization) vulnerable if it’s not secured correctly.

No. 9: Make time to evaluate.
Evaluation must also become a regular part of your process – another aspect of the culture change that must take place. “You need to create time in your meetings to look at the trends and ask, ‘How is this moving?’” said Ramirez. Though a staff retreat is a good place to review data, it’s much more likely to stay at the top of people’s minds if you can “sprinkle it in” whenever possible.

No. 10: Be patient.
“If you rush it, you might miss a few things that are really critical to get right on the front end,” said Ramirez. “Be patient with yourself, and be patient with the organization – you’re driving a significant change.”

Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.

To find out more about The Gathering Place, visit their website.

 

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