Nonprofit Data: The Case of Writopia Lab

Submitted on Mon, 1/7/2013 - 9:01am

facebook.com/WritopiaLab

Writopia Lab

  • New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
  • 65 Staff (Full- and Part-Time)
Distributed data, distributed staff: An organization with multiple locations struggles to make do with existing tools, and hopes to streamline its use of data.

The New York City-based Writopia Lab introduces children to writing and literature through a variety of programs, including writing workshops, a theater festival, and literary magazines. In addition to the organization’s five NYC locations, it maintains two others upstate and branches in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Tracking participant data is critical to managing so many individual workshops and events for such a high volume of participants, and Writopia has covered some ground on the way to being a data-centric organization, but the geographical distribution of the staff is one of the hurdles it is overcoming along the way.

“We’re a gigantically distributed organization,” said Director of Operations Jeremy Wallace-Seagall. “That’s definitely one of the challenges we face.” It’s difficult to coordinate consistently with the organization’s staff members, both because of their locations and their scheduling, he said. There are 65 total staff, but not all work at the same time, as many of the organization’s faculty are seasonal or part-time.

Another obstacle is that the tools at his disposal are not necessarily the best for the job, nor do they all integrate well. Jeremy is doing what he can to take advantage of the different opportunities to collect and use data, he said, but to some extent he’s simply “making do.”

At Writopia’s New York offices, he uses a Microsoft Access database that he’s tweaked in unusual ways to meet his needs—a less than ideal solution, he said, despite his advanced modifications. “I’m an old ‘database head,’ but one who got stuck in Access,” he said. “I like to say that I’ve done things with Access that very few people have done, but it’s still Access—it faces all the same limitations as any Access database.”

The organization’s other locations don’t share the database, an inconsistency which causes problems. To remedy it, Jeremy is considering switching to Salesforce across the nonprofit, and promised himself that by year’s end he’d have either standardized all locations onto Access database or rolled out a new Salesforce database.

Currently he’s looking for a database and website consultant to help consolidate and streamline data, which he believes will help with reporting and analysis—which in turn will help him manage growth.

“We’re growing every year somewhere between 45 and 65 percent, and there are always people saying, ‘Hey, can you come to my region?’” he said. “I need to be able to analyze our growth and see how many workshops an average student takes and have all the registration and enrollment data in one place to see what makes sense.”

“We have outgrown our space on the Upper West Side, and we’re trying to analyze whether we should get a gigantic space here on the Upper West Side or a smaller space here and another one downtown or in Brooklyn or wherever,” he said. “So we’re looking at where our clients come from, and similar people in those areas. If we go to the east side, will it be all this pent-up demand, or is everyone who might come to our workshops already coming?”

Writopia Lab runs on a self-sustaining business model in which workshop participants pay on a no-questions-asked sliding scale pricing system—about 50 percent pay full fee, 40 percent pay somewhere in the middle, and 10 percent get full scholarships. Though the nonprofit gets some grant money—about 10 percent of its total funding—currently none of the funders asks for reporting.

“That’s great in terms of being able to focus on getting things done, and not having to report in orange for one giver and yellow for another, but it means I have not taken this time to consolidate our data and come up with great ways of turning that data into information,” Jeremy said, adding that he plans to change that and hopes to focus on making use of that data in coming months.

“That’s what the next year is about personally for me,” he said. “Turning data into information. I’ve drafted dashboards and looked at various tools. We have a donor packet that we give out to people, and I’ve got some pretty reports in that. They’re all completely legitimate, but our analysis is not terribly robust. That’s sort of an artifact—we’ve been so busy serving clients that we’ve not had the time to chase after funding, or produce reports that would make it easy for us to drastically change the amount of institutional giving we’re receiving.

“My hope and expectation over the next year is that we’ll see that cycle twist, and the reports will come and tell a convincing-enough story that it will be easy enough to get in front of funders,” he said.

Writopia’s enrollment-tracking capabilities have not reached the levels Jeremy would like. Without a shared registration/enrollment/contact management database, information is spread out in a number of places and systems, which makes it difficult to use the data effectively.

“Part of it is a workflow challenge,” he said. “This sort of gets to … the notion of loosely joining best-in-class systems, when my dream, really, is to have one piece of software that does everything in my life. I get the pitfalls of that—I have reservations about having all my eggs in one basket, and there are other concerns—but having all your eggs in one basket makes it really easy to find them.”

Under the current system, potential clients have to visit separate web pages for each branch of the nonprofit to find their scheduled classes, a separate registration page for each branch that plugs into a Google spreadsheet, plus a pricing page—and they have to remember all the information on each course they’re interested in, look it up on the pricing page, and register for it separately.

“I don’t care that I have to copy everything from the Google Docs to an Access database,” Jeremy said. “What’s brutal is what clients have to go through—that’s the piece that is most important to us. If I don’t get my website rebuilt, if I don’t get my Access db out to everyone, if I don’t get my Salesforce database installed, I have to find a way to make it easier for people to find and sign up for our workshops.”

He said he’s been working to establish a data culture across the organization, which hasn’t always come easily. “If you’re making a list, do it in a spreadsheet instead of a document,” he said. “It took me a while to create that sort of way of thinking, but I think people are pretty well on board with the notion that we’re collecting data, and whether or not we’re analyzing exactly this data at exactly this time, we want to be mindful of collecting the data in a clear and reasonable way.”

This case study is part of the research project in 2012 conducted by NTEN with the help of Idealware. See the State of Nonprofit Data report for more information about how nonprofits are--and aren't--making data part of their decision-making processes, and the key challenges that affect an organization's ability to be more effectively "data-driven."