January 7, 2013

Nonprofit Data: The Case of Central Texas 4C

  • Temple, TX
  • 165 Staff
  • Administers 16 Head Start centers in four cities

In four neighboring cities, Central Texas 4C administers Head Start, the federal program to promote school readiness for children five and younger from low-income families, to a population that includes a lot of transients as a result of a nearby military base; which means theres a lot of client turnover. To help keep track of that changing population, the organization relies on data, said Executive Director Janell Frazier.

“I think as far as data tracking is concerned, we track everything,” she said, “all the family demographics, what the child’s needs are, his learning goals or objectives for the week, and whether he is making progress on them.”

The nonprofit is required to track and report on services for federal funding requirements, as well, Janell said, which end up taking a good amount of staff time and energy.

“All our money is from the federal government, and it better be spent on what its supposed to or they take it away,” she said. “Taxpayer dollars are precious. We have to be able to prove that were using that money wisely. They want details about every kind of data we have, and we couldn’t do it without the data, or, we couldn’t prove to anybody that we could do it. And if were going to go after funding, we have to do that.”

To meet those requirements, as well as to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the organizations programs and service, staff track all sorts of information about each participating child. Data about their progress is evaluated and fed back to teachers on an ongoing basis to facilitate improved ability to help the child develop. That data is tracked for each student, in all more than 700 a year.

“That’s a challenge,” Janell said. “We measure outcomes for children, that’s primary, and what I believe has led to our excellence. We’ve gotten international attention for our work with babies up to age three just based on the data we gather and analyze. We developed a database for outcomes on infants and toddlers. We have people who work in the homes with the families and the teachers and the special needs people, and it’s all tracked. Have we served the children well? How many have been diagnosed? Are they getting services? Do they need dental care? Can they eat? Are they healthy? We need all that data.”

Almost as important as the data itself is the process of collecting it, she said.

“Every year (Head Start) has a program informational report that captures untold data on our children, families and staff, and we have to send that information in every year,” she said. You can’t get that information at the end of the year, its too big, you have to track it all along.”

“None of the organizations 165 staff members is exempt from participating in the data effort,” she said, “everyone is involved, regardless of title or role.”

“Everybody gathers data,” she said. “Everybody. Even the cooks; we cook for all our centers and transport the meals, so how many ounces of food each child is getting, temperature logs, all that stuff, inventory control. We have vehicles we have to keep up with, our drivers have to understand each vehicles drivers log, it doesn’t matter who it is, they have to capture the data for that trip.

“Even my maintenance guys keep inventory control, which centers need fire marshal inspection within 30 days, is everything in the First Aid kit appropriate and not past the expiration date, are the medications in the fridges logged properly and signed off on, is there one person in charge of giving.”

To track data, the organization uses a mixture of tools and methods that range from a proprietary Head Start database to Microsoft Excel. Janell said some data is even recorded the old-fashioned way – by hand. In her experience, she’s been with Head Start for 20 years, 13 of them at Central Texas 4Clow-tech methods aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I’m sorry, but my spreadsheet does a really fine job,” she said. “I love technology, but as far as making it easier? No sir. When you’re training people to use a computer, a new system, there’s also an untold amount of paperwork and data you’ve got to do at the end of the day.”

Overall, she said, technology has made it possible to track incredible amounts of data. Head Start in Washington overlooks programs in 50 states and Puerto Rico, plus migrant-related programs, and that kind of oversight wouldn’t be manageable without technology, she knows.

But in most cases it leads to information overload, she said. “We’re always getting hit with new frameworks to look at. How do you know you’re meeting your goals? Every time there’s a new goal to look at, there’s new data to collect for it, and you’ve got to retrain your people midstream, and there’s something else they have to learn.

“I know how data can be used to help the big picture,” she said. “As far as tracking it myself, I have to physically work my body into some weird shape just to track data. I think one of the problems with data is that it’s so rare to see valid data, reliable data. If the data says something is so, if it says a kid can do something, when I come in I better be able to see it myself, or that’s not valid data.”

Despite her staff’s best efforts, she said her organization is always at peak capacity for the types and amounts of data it can reasonably manage. Part of that is the burden it puts on staff time, and part of it is funding-related, she said.

“Until education is funded like a business, were not going to be able to do much more than were doing, she said. Funding is a big problem. It’s expensive to get data. We need the funding to get more data, but we need the data to get more funding. The real catch is, if we had the extra funding, I wouldnt spend it on data.”

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.”

Chris Bernard