January 7, 2013

Nonprofit Data: The Case of the Alliance for Climate Education

  • Oakland, CA
  • 15 staff plus educators around the country

When the Alliance for Climate Education wanted to use data to measure impact and engagement, among other uses, it turned to consultants for help—first Seattle-based Groundwire Consulting, and then Percolator Consulting, a Groundwire spinoff. The award-winning national nonprofit is dedicated to using fun-based methods to educate America’s high school students about the science behind climate change, and inspiring them to do something about it. The organization is based in Oakland, Calif., with teams in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC, Atlanta, New England, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

“The Alliance is a super fun organization, and very data savvy,” said Karen Uffelman, who worked with the organization first at Groundwire and later at Percolator, the small firm she started with another former Groundwire worker. “They’re really good at presenting material in a way thats entertaining and interesting.”

Karen said ACE is using data to a number of ends, including measuring impact and helping to evolve program offerings to make decisions about what’s working and what isn’t to inform future program plans. The primary program offering involves sending educators into high schools in 14 states to give assembly presentations about the climate.

They use data to determine who among the students is most likely to become a leader and step up to take on the mantle, she said. “They pay a lot of attention to skills and performance. The educators ask students to take an initial shallow commitment of doing just one thing, and once they make that commitment the organization uses technology very successfully to get people plugged into the system.”

The next step is getting involved at the school level with a sustainability club. The students partner with volunteers and educators within the schools to mentor the sustainability club, and once thats happened, the organization asks those clubs to make commitments, too.

“They have staff touching base with those clubs over time and figuring out who those leaders are within those clubs,” Karen said. “And they have training opportunities, too. So they can track from very shallow engagement up to being spokespeople on climate issues on the national level, and see what that looks like.”

ACE uses a Salesforce database and has a tool within Salesforce that helps track engagement. Staff organizers use dashboards to see how they’re doing building engagement at each level of the engagement pyramid. Groundwire came up with the idea of the engagement pyramid as a framework to help organizations think about all the people in their communities or all the audiences with which they work. Built upon an old-fashioned fundraising and organizing principle, it differs from an engagement ladder in that it focuses on all audiences rather than one.

The Alliance also uses engagement-related data for fundraising, Karen said, but her work with the organization has focused on using data to track engagement to see whats working and whats not.

“They have a data team, and all their organizers are required to use Salesforce so that anyone doing any kind of relationship-building is putting information into the database,” she said. “The engagement strategist on staff and two others work really hard to track all the people in the database.”

“At Groundwire, we initially did a lot of work… to help them think through what the definition should be for each level of their engagement pyramid. Their audiences grow from one kind of audience to anotherfor example, the students they reach in high school are going to be alumni, which is not the audience that is the focus of their primary offering, but they will be important for going out in the world for what the Alliance set out to do in the first place: making decisions and effecting change.”

The organization wanted to be able to track the ways it could build, maintain, and cultivate relationships with people after they graduated from high school as well as while they were in school, and Groundwire helped build two pyramids for the two audiences. A contact has to graduate from one pyramid to the other as far as engagement is concerned, and Groundwire helped implement that transition in the Salesforce database.

“We did a lot of thinking about how to help them evaluate progress,” Karen said. Her new outfit, Percolator Consulting, is continuing the work Groundwire started.

“Now that they’re actually measuring over time, some of their assumptions are proving wrong, and were helping them adjust those and rethink them, she said. They’re also launching new programs all the time. We help them think about what the engagement function is… and how it complements other programs.”

“The Alliance started by being very thoughtful about certain kinds of data. All the organizations educators have specific goals about how many kids they’re trying to reach, how many schools, and how many school districts they’re building partnerships in, for example.”

‘They’ve been thoughtful about that since the beginning,’ she said. ‘They were very focused on getting to a goal of reaching X number of high school students with the assumption that would be enough to reach their ultimate vision. That model evolved over time as the young organization adapted.”

“We worked on the theory of change with them at Groundwire to help them be very crystal clear about what they believe their actions are resulting in and making sure they can test those results,” she said. “They evolved in their thinking about what it was they needed to be measuring and how long they wanted us to continue with cultivation and relationship-building with each student. It wasn’t a matter of talking to them once, it was more, We have started leaders down this path, we have more to give them as an organization to help them grow into adulthood.”

“Often when we go in and work with an organization thats been around for a long time, many times those are the organizations that have the hardest time shifting culturally to embrace letting the data help them evaluate how well they are doing and meeting their mission,” Karen said. “It goes back to the whole theory of change idea… Many people have a bias toward their theory of change but are never able to show that their bias is provable and true. That’s why we start with the theory of change.”

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