The data we hold are often considered the keys to success: if we can just use data to tell stories and support our goals, we’ll win that grant, manage the board better, respond in real time, and better understand the ebb and flow of our programs. Yet effective data use is also one of the biggest challenges organizations meet: how to trust it, build transparency, support the stories that need telling, and make sure the right people have access to it, over many years.
At a minimum, an organization needs to provide data for annual reports, board oversight, and grant making. Internally, evaluation and monitoring programs all require data to provide the quantitative analysis portion of any robust assessment.
Web analytic tools are robust and relatively effortless and, when you’re gathering the right metrics, really provide value for your time. In contrast, gathering data on your program offerings and their impacts is a little more challenging.
It is almost always a struggle to access program data easily, consistently, and repeatedly without losing weeks in the process. Ideally, your organization has one system that houses all key data and tools that enable you to access and analyze data systematically, providing you with key benchmarking metrics. Not there yet? Fear not—if you are using different systems for different activities, you can still build a strong data process using your existing tools.
Building Better Systems
Identify the tools that give you consistency, accessibility, and ease of use. These could be from your current databases, surveys, registration forms, and Google docs. If a key metric you want to track isn’t yet in digital form, take a step back and put in place systems that will help you gather that quickly and easily (Google forms may be a really good option if you don’t have an existing way to gather information digitally). Identify what information can be exported to Excel or a Google spreadsheet. Understanding and using pivot tables vastly increases the efficacy of spreadsheets and can allow you to quickly see if your key metrics will provide actionable and clear data.
Know what you need to measure, report on, and respond to. If you’re the one managing the data project, do this for yourself before building metrics for others (you understand your own data better).
Build detailed reporting to track enrollment numbers from macro to micro levels. You want to see enrollment figures for your entire organization and quickly to drill down to individual classes and lessons. This metric feeds into evaluation criteria and helps its supporters demonstrate impact.
Use the same search criteria repeatedly over different time periods. When you can see key benchmark criteria by which you, your staff, and your funders evaluate your activities, you have an improved understanding of the impact of your programs and are able to set tangible goals.
Respond in Real Time
Create reports and visuals that provide a snapshot of current activities. Trends and historical data analysis are crucial, but data really starts having impact when it demonstrates what’s happening today. Be prepared to act in response to what you’re seeing, as this metric should illustrate slow enrollment and high turnover.
Establish benchmarking tools that let you look at the same set of data by week, semester, and custom data ranges. This metric illustrates trends that your organization can respond to over time.
Learn how to gather answers to questions not yet asked. Your goal is to have your key data in the same place so that you can respond to questions. That may mean building a core excel spreadsheet and populating that from different sources or, if the need for data is increasing in regularity, it may mean it is time to consider a comprehensive system that can support your data analysis requirements for years to come.
The chances are you’ll need more than one data-gathering source to truly get a macro-to-micro view of your activities. Spreadsheets and pivot tables really can provide incredibly strong tools to those without access to more robust software. Their value comes when the data being analyzed is reliable, consistent, and directly relate to your goals and benchmarks.