Better Than Cake: Using Data to Celebrate Team Wins

When we think about using data, we often think of it in terms of external audiences:

  • How can we use data to help prospective funders see why our work is important?
  • How can we use data to show donors what we have done with their money and how their gifts have made an impact?
  • How can we use data to build the case for investing in this program or initiative?

How much time and effort do we spend on doing the same for our internal audiences?

I don’t mean benchmarking, or monitoring and evaluation towards data-driven decision-making. Nor do I mean annual goals and reviews. They’re important, but they are not what I’m talking about.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to assume that, because our team members are on board with the mission, we don’t need to inspire them. They already know the impact they’re making, right? They’re here, and they compiled the data for the grant report, or they saw that e-mail that went out to our supporters, etc. They understand that it’s the outcomes that are important.

Raise your hand (here’s mine!) if you get satisfaction out of crossing something off a list, out of seeing a freshly painted wall, or out of the increasing number of signatures on a petition?

When working towards changing the world, we often have projects and programs that are also ambitious. They take a long time before you see any effects. Or maybe they involve slogging through lots of mud as you try to build something new, or figuring out what exactly to build as you’re building it. We all get tired when we’re in the middle. We question why we are doing what we’re doing, and whether what we’re doing is even making a dent, or ever going to lead to that desired outcome.

Those are all important questions. But we should ask them to ensure we’re on track, not in reaction to being exhausted from hacking through all the weeds. And it’s easy to forget that sometimes the connections that are clear to us are not to everyone else. Maybe you can see the path up that mountain, while everybody else sees underbrush and thinks the group lost the trail a long time ago.

Think back to when you were kid, trying new things. Think about an activity that came easily and quickly to you. Now think about something that was much more difficult. Which activity did you stick with?

In change management, this concept is called “small wins.” But you don’t necessarily have to be working on a big change; this concept can be helpful to any long-term or large-scale effort. It can also be helpful even in shorter term projects when there are a lot of little pieces and most people only get to see their own section.

So how do we build this into projects without creating a lot more work?

Once upon a time, I was in charge of sending out direct mail appeals. Which meant asking everyone in the office to come help stuff envelopes. People joined as their schedules allowed—a couple hours here, a half hour in between conference calls there, etc. To most, it seemed an endless stream of letters, envelopes, and mailing labels. (Okay, it did to me, too!)

A week or two after the mailing had dropped and donations began rolling in, I e-mailed everyone who had helped, letting them know the total number of envelopes they had stuffed and the donations received so far as a result of this appeal. People were excited to know what they’d done together as a group and the preliminary results.

Doing this did not involve data that wasn’t already being collected or that I didn’t already have access to—but it was data that not everyone else working on the project had access to see. It doesn’t need to be some sophisticated dashboard. It can be if that’s your thing, but don’t allow perfecting that to be another excuse to procrastinate on sharing this information. And that’s my point: you rarely need to collect extra data. You merely need to help others see the rest of the picture, then move on.

But what if I look at this data and we are off track? Then course correct. Use the data to show others where the gap is, create that sense of urgency, and get their help in fixing it.

Picture the week before summer camp. Schedules have conspired such that most of the experienced staff was out of the office for other events. One of the biggest pieces is getting registration completed for the 200+ campers and chaperones we had invited from our program sites across the country. People were plugging away, but nobody had a clear idea of how much stood between us and the finish line or what to focus on, in large part because a lot of the data from paperwork had not been entered in yet.

I looked in the camp roster (an Excel spreadsheet) and quickly tallied up the number of complete registrations, incomplete registrations, and spots to be determined (i.e. held spots with no data entered). We held a team meeting in the morning. I shared these numbers, explaining that our goal was to close the gap, but that the priority for the day was entering the rest of the paperwork so we could tell how big of a gap it really was. Then I sent out an e-mail update including everyone on the team in and out of the office. I also posted the numbers on a piece of paper on the conference room door.

Throughout the day, the interns crossed out and updated the numbers on the door. They were excited to see the number of completed registrations go up while the other categories went down. At the end of the day, I e-mailed an update to the team comparing our morning numbers with our end of day numbers so that we could see 1) how far we’d come, and 2) what we needed to accomplish the next day. We closed that gap by the end of the week.

I can’t claim credit for getting all this paperwork in—everyone did their part to close the gaps once they could see clearly where the biggest gaps were and where to focus their efforts. All I did was filter and count up rows in Excel, then put that information in front of the people who needed to see it. End result? We got what we needed for our kids to come to camp and have a great time!

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Many times, it is not that these small wins are not happening so much as that only a few can see them. Data is simply another way to help our teammates see both the forest and the trees.

Think about the data you have and how you can use it for internal audiences:

  • How can we use data to demonstrate to team members why the program or project is important?
  • How can we use data to show our colleagues how their contributions have made an impact?
  • How can we use data to build the case for investing staff time in this program or initiative?

Just as we hope to make our supporters feel like they are a part of something greater by sharing data on what they’ve helped us achieve, let us also remember the people by our side who want the same thing.

Photo credit: Carlos Muza

Janice Chan
Janice Chan never was able to pick one thing to be when she grew up. While grown up status could be debated, what she currently does is consult (, teach data management in NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Professional Certificate Program, and co-organize NTEN’s Nonprofits and Data online community group. She is also is working towards a Master of Information Management at the University of Maryland. Originally from New York, Janice arrived south of the Mason-Dixon Line via St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Post-graduation, Janice served as an AmeriCorps*VISTA before officially joining the nonprofit sector. She has worn hats in data management, volunteer management, marketing and communications, grant writing, curriculum development, program management, technical training, change management, and project management. In short, Janice has spent 11+ years organizing and restructuring information so that teams can work together more effectively and focus on their missions. She also enjoys editing, making playlists, and figuring out how we could do this better. You can find her on Twitter @curiositybone.