February 10, 2014

Turning Teammates into Data Heroes

Academy of Hope

  • 25 staff, operating budget of $1.5 million
  • Data management might seem mundane, but there’s a strong connection between it and direct advocacy efforts.

Jordan Michelson shares his successes building building effective data management systems, and shows that they’re not only important to organizational staff. It helps other to advocate for your cause!

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Jordan, give us a snapshot of your work at Academy of Hope (AoH).

Jordan Michelson (JM): AoH provides a variety of programs and services around Adult Basic Education to meet the needs of adult learners in Washington, DC. We have a staff of 25 and an operating budget of $1.5 million.

We reached a huge milestone this year with a total of 55 graduates for the school year, our largest graduating class in history. And next year we’re going to evolve in a new direction as we launch a charter school, which we got approval for this spring. We have one year to put all of the details together, which gives us an opportunity to examine our program across the board, look closely at our processes, and determine what needs adjustment.

Before I was hired, most data work was focused on reporting, and was being done by various program staff at all different levels. Initially I balanced classroom instruction, program coordination, and administrative support with a new focus specifically on data and outcomes coordination. The latter has been a new opportunity for AoH and for me.

NTEN: What are some of the challenges you face in this role?

JM: As my position straddles programs and administration, its been challenging for the rest of the organization to understand my position and responsibilities. The more time I spend on programmatic issues, the less time I have to focus on our data needs.

When I started this position I made a list of goals that included launching a dashboard to evaluate how our classes were meeting the needs of our learners because I’d like to see us move from data used solely for reporting purposes to making data-informed decisions about our programs. I haven’t been able to push that needle yet.

Being in the nonprofit world comes with a certain amount of feasibility-checks; I’m sure that everyone on staff wants the things I just mentioned, but it may not be feasible to divert time and energy away from all of our other needs. It’s a tough balance, and it’s especially hard when you come to realize that this really good thing you want to do just isn’t a priority right now. But it’s important to remain optimistic, and know that the work you are doing is making a positive contribution to the organization’s mission.

NTEN: And you had proof of that recently! Tell us about your data win.

JM: I’ve been trying to link data to our organization’s mission whenever possible. One opportunity to drive the point home was when a student leader came to us for some information. She wanted to petition the city council to win funding for students to get to and from school, and she had some basic questions: How many of our learners in our student body receive bus tokens? How many face other barriers getting to AoH due to transportation?

We were able to provide this information quickly because of our student contact log. It’s a simple Excel workbook that’s kept on a shared drive where we keep track of every time a student calls to let us know they need to miss class. One field on the log is reason for absence. We were able to quickly look over the data from the term and the year, and come up with quantifiable numbers about how many students were facing these types of barriers.

Logging phone calls is not glamorous work and it doesn’t take a data hero to do something like that, but filling that log in consistently and actually looking back at it has the potential to make a big impact. And Excel is a system that everybody is able to use.

jordan_michelson_-_celebratory_meme_creaNTEN: Thats great! How did you celebrate it?

JM: I emailed all staff with a note of encouragement and affirmation. I wanted to help people see that even though this seems like a pretty mundane task, there’s a connection between them taking the time to fill in the log and a direct advocacy effort that really means something to our learners and community. People were excited; one coworker even turned it into a meme involving the Star Trek character, Data.

NTEN: How will you continue to foster a culture of data moving forward?

JM: I’d love to send all-staff emails highlighting our data wins on a semi-regular basis. I haven’t figured out a system for doing that, but that’s a next step.

Another exciting opportunity is on the horizon. We’re participating in a best practices meeting with other adult education providers in the DC area. I am hopeful that this will include data best practices and be a natural space to broach the topic of organization-to-organization data sharing or at least start having the conversation about what were all measuring, and how.