Nonprofit Data: The Case of the Women’s Center of Montgomery County

A women’s center’s journey from no-tech to data-centric leads it down a bumpy road.

  • Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
  • 14 Staff and 185 Volunteers
  • 800 Members

Based in Pennsylvania’s third-largest county, the Women’s Center of Montgomery County serves as many as 4,200 women each year through a domestic violence program and two hospitals. Director Maria Macaluso said the 800-member organizations 14 staff-members and 185 volunteers use data in a number of different ways across its seven offices—primarily to improve the services it is able to offer clients.

Using technology to link the seven different offices—some as much as 45 miles apart—helped unify the organization as well as laying the foundation both to better collect data and to act on it.

“If there’s a client coming into our offices for service, like counseling, we enter the data about them and their visit so when they come in for another service, it’s already there,” she said. “I can know who received services and what she received, regardless of what office she went to. I can see what’s going on.”

Sharing data across unified offices lets Maria track client need and adjust the organizations ability to meet that need, allowing it to improve the direct services offered to clients.

“If we see more people need a protection order in one part of the county than another, we can shift people and resources around,” she said. “We also track volunteers and members that way so we can deploy them if we need someone to go out and do something.”

That data also helps the nonprofit appeal to fundraisers by demonstrating what it does using hard numbers. “Despite the many ways the Women’s Center benefits from using data, its been a slow evolution toward becoming data-centric,” Maria said. When she joined the organization 15 years ago, it had a single Mac computer—the extent of its technology—and staff still used pencil and paper and the occasional Excel spreadsheet.

Recognizing opportunity, she hired an IT person to improve the organizations technology infrastructure, and at the same time began the foray into data collection and analysis. Almost immediately, she began to see client demographics in a way she had not been able to see them before.

“We could see where we were getting more requests for child services, and that enabled us to get a grant to cover it,” she said. “Then, the same with elder abuse—we were getting more calls for people over a certain age, and because we were able to track that, we were able to get a grant to fund working with them. I could see patterns and used it in my proposal writing and grant writing.”

As the organization has gotten better at collecting data, Maria has gotten better at using it in her day to day work. “Just last week, I had to write three proposals from Friday to Monday, and I could do that because I had this data,” she said. “It helps me connect to what were doing. For example, how many people are served over a 10-year period for each of our offices? In response to what I find, I can shift resources appropriately. I can access it in the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep or if I’m traveling, and I don’t have to wait for someone to track it down and find it—that’s a big selling point, that I can access the information from anywhere, at a conference, wherever.”

Buoyed by the organizations success, Maria is looking for new ways to bring more data into the organization.

“I’m a logic person—I need to see numbers and things,” she said. “I want to see comparisons to show my board, comparisons for each office that show many people were serviced, staffing hours, etc. I have been hungry for data. Once we got a little bit and saw what we could do with it in different areas to get more money and more services, I wanted more.”

She’s not alone, she said. Most staff members are on board with the cultural shift toward data-gathering as they recognize the value it affords them. But not everyone is sold on the idea—she’s noticed a gap between the newer staffers for whom data practices are a regular part of the process and workflow, and those who were on staff before the organization began using computers and need to learn a new way of doing things.

“The newer members—not necessarily the younger ones—value it more,” she said. “We have a split with the people who value it based on their comfort level, but it’s getting there. I definitely think were cutting edge about it. That’s how we were able to build our IT base—no one else in this area was doing this. It’s one of the things I’m really proud of.”

Despite the Women’s Centers progress, the nonprofit has hit a few bumps in the road to becoming data-centric—primarily those caused by external sharing and reporting requirements, which put an extra, and sometimes excessive, burden on staff.

Staff enters all the required information into proprietary software created by the state, and the three big agencies that handle all the state funding can extract the information they need, she said. In theory, it’s a good system, but in reality, she said, “it’s actually a bit of a nightmare situation.”

“We started using it in July, and it’s a nightmare,” she said. “They keep tweaking it. You can literally be on the screen using it, and they’ll be changing the buttons and fields while you’re in there. It’s not easy to use, and I can’t go in there and figure things out. If it worked as advertised, it would be helpful instead of a burden, but whoever designed it wasn’t familiar with victims of domestic violence. The mapping in the software isn’t consistent across the board, and they call things by different names, which makes it difficult. Most of the programs in our state serve 40 or 50 people a month because they’re shelters, but we’re serving hundreds—it just wasn’t designed for an organization doing what were doing.”

If those external requirements are the Women’s Center of Montgomery County’s data cross to bear, the internal move to a more data-centric culture has overall been a positive experience for the organization—and it’s all part of a broader, informal initiative to improve technology and efficiency for staff, Maria said. She sees the two as necessarily linked.

“The IT part of it and data part of it are so linked,” she said. “When I first brought an IT person on staff, my board was like, We could use that money for other stuff, but we were right. IT pays for itself, even beyond the data part of it. That’s the thing I think many programs resist, making the investment and building the IT first. If you’re trying to do something with an old computer, you’re not going to get there—you’re going to have to make an investment for that 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