January 7, 2013

Nonprofit Data: The Case of YMCA of Metro Chicago

A large metropolitan nonprofit paves the way for data-centric organizations with a dedicated team of data analysts.

YMCA of Metro Chicago

  • 500-600 Full-Time Staff
  • $110 Million Budget
  • 23 gyms, 5 camps, 14 community schools

The YMCA of Metro Chicago is a big organization, with a $110 million budget and a physical infrastructure that includes 23 gyms, five camps and 14 community schools, all supported by nearly 600 full-time staff and thousands of part-time fitness instructors, afterschool staff, and other human services personnel. In addition to gym visitors, the nonprofit provides services for hundreds of Chicago public school students and as many as 700 seniors each week.

That many moving parts means a lot of opportunity for data-tracking, which the YMCA sees as a priority to an extent that few other organizations do. To that end, a three-person performance improvement team focuses entirely on data.

“There’s no other human services organization I know of that has a department like us that’s tasked with doing this thing in particular,” said performance improvement analyst Andrew Means. “We track operational data as well as impact. No other Y across the country has this office, as far as I know, and no other organization has poured these kinds of resources into data.”

His job on the data team “is to help operate our business more efficiently and help quantify and understand the impact were having through quantitative methodologies,” he said—at least, that’s the long version. The short version: He digs through data and builds relationships. And that data is expansive, he said.

“It’s getting to the point where I can look at class registration and what programs are full, and track youth attendance at our different programs and facilities,” he said. That information can be used to measure impact through fitness testing in the programs. “In 12 of our centers, were tracking youth heights and weights, flexibility, you name it,” he said. “So, I’ll be able to start tracking that and see what the populations were working with look like. I can also compare that to the general population to see if were attracting just healthy kids, or if there are any other patterns or opportunities.”

The goal is to make sure the YMCA of Metro Chicago is offering the best programs it can.

“We’re a city in dire need of services, Andrew said. Our youth are suffering from a variety of social problems. Our CEO knew that to lead the charge, we’d need to know what we were doing in a way that was more than anecdotal stories—and, we’d need to be able to back that up with hard data and some science behind it.”

The CEO’s desire for the Y to become a community leader led to the focus on data and improved program outcomes. But there’s a secondary goal beyond improving services, Andrew said—the data reporting capabilities are critical for attracting funders.

“Philanthropy and major donors want to see this,” he said. “Now we can approach them and say, ‘Hey, you have a myriad of programs to fund, and we’re the only ones who can tell you what our program has done—these are the facts and figures.’ Funders want to fund high quality programming. If we can show that, if we can prove that, it’s going to be a very attractive offer to philanthropic organizations.”

The team is working to link data tracked internally to external data, he said—for example, from state and local juvenile justice agencies, which would let Andrew track whether the Y’s academic programs are having any effect on crime and delinquency rates in the city—but isn’t there yet.

“There’s a lot of different ways we get data from the field,” he said. “One is operational data—we know how many people are signing up, how many are checking in to our facilities, things like that. But there’s all this other information our boots-on-the ground people have to collect. We’re really trying to move toward taking enrollment data—who is showing up?—and connecting it to other data sources to see if our programs are moving the needle on juvenile justice, or school attendance rate.”

While none of it would be possible without the support of the CEO and the buy-in of the entire organization, neither would it be possible without recent advances in technology that facilitate the tracking and processing of so much data—from the membership cards users swipe at YMCA facilities, which provide detailed attendance records that he can use in concert with other participant data, to the software for managing, analyzing and reporting on that information.

“It would not have been possible 20 years ago to do the kind of analysis were doing today,” Andrew said, citing as an example a current project looking at 12 years’ worth of data presented in seven million rows. “Being able to do that with technology? That’s new. Data is useless unless you can communicate it, too, and those tools are really evolving.”

While the YMCA of Metro Chicago has a leg up thanks to its devoted data department, he said other organizations are slowly beginning to think more proactively about data, as well, but overall the field is still emerging.

“There are nonprofits interested in learning how to use data, but in most cases the capacity is lagging behind what’s being asked of them, and they’re kind of playing catch up”, he said. “A lot of organizations are connecting nonprofits to data scientists, but that doesn’t solve any long-term problems with nonprofits—it has to be built from within.”

The YMCA of Metro Chicago’s model changed the organizational culture to make data collection and analysis intrinsic, and Andrew believes that’s the way other organizations will succeed, as well—even if its on a smaller scale. “Find someone in your organization to do it—someone who likes Excel, he said. Begin to groom them and give them some capacity to do this stuff. I’m a big believer in expertise. People are beginning to talk this language without really knowing what it means, and are saying things they can’t support. They talk about impact but the data they use to back that up is actually inaccurate. Having data is not enough. Being able to interpret it is the next step.”

“If I can leave one mark on the world, it’s that I want nonprofits to use data to improve programming,” he said. “The reason nonprofits exist is to solve problems in the world. For too long, nonprofits have been responsible for telling stories and making sure they weren’t wasting money, but they didn’t know if they were solving problems—now you can actually know if you’re solving problems and you can show funders that. This needs to happen. We have limited resources and should not waste any more time.”

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