If a Metric Changes on a Spreadsheet and No One Notices, Does it Show Impact?

I love data as much as the next person. Give me an interactive map, a pivot table, even a plain old pie chart and I’m happy. But, there’s more to being data-informed and more to what we should demand of our data, right? When it comes to focusing on the right data, I like to ask myself these two questions.

Is data helpful if you aren’t using it?

We collect a lot of data. People join or renew as members (when did they join, how many times have they renewed, what dues level did they pay, where are they based, who are they…), people get our messages (on which channels, do they open or click, do they share the message, who are they and when did they engage…), people do things with us (webinars, tech clubs, online groups, offline groups, conferences…) and all of those things have their own data sets.

You get my point; before we even start to layer on information from the wider sector or filters to subdivide topics and categories, we have A LOT of information to work with. But, does it matter if we don’t work with it? If we don’t set goals and then create regular opportunities to review the data, does it matter that we capture it?

We can’t forget that to be data-informed as an organization and as decision-makers, we have to actually be informed by that data (see what I did there?). Establishing regular meetings or processes for metrics review helps position us to learn from the data we’re collecting and be better positioned to identify opportunities to improve.

Is data helpful if you can’t change it?

Why are you measuring or tracking something that you can’t (or don’t want to) impact? A common example of this that I hear often is with volunteer engagement. An organization has, for example, 20 volunteers, and they want to track the hours contributed, the impact on programs, and so forth. And the highest level metric that they lead with is that they have 20 volunteers, and they have 20 every year. But what they fail to explain is that they only have 20 volunteer roles. Unless you are going to open up the volunteer opportunities, I question whether reporting that you have 20 volunteers, at least as your lead metric, is helpful at all.

When looking at all of your various metrics, be sure that you are measuring things you want to impact and that you are focused on the data points you can and will change.

These are the reminders I find helpful but I’d love to hear from you! When your boss or your board or your intern ask you what you’re tracking and why – how do you talk about data?

Amy Sample Ward
Driven by a belief that the nonprofit technology community can be a movement-based force for positive change, Amy is NTEN’s CEO and former membership director. Her prior experience in direct service, policy, philanthropy, and capacity-building organizations has also fueled her aspirations to create meaningful, inclusive, and compassionate community engagement and educational opportunities for all organizations. Amy inspires the NTEN team and partners around the world to believe in community-generated change. She believes technology can help nonprofits reach their missions more effectively, efficiently, and inclusively, and she’s interested in everything from digital equity to social innovation.