I recently attended the Ready by 21 National Meeting where I sat in a networking discussion that was cleverly titled “I Got 99 Problems, and Data Portals Are All of Them.” The group of mostly nonprofit leaders realized we share some of the same frustrating data challenges. Upon my return to NYC, many of those concerns were echoed. Here are some things funders could do that might help:
Do not require nonprofits to enter data directly into a funder’s system. Government agencies seem to do this the most. For small nonprofits that lack good data systems, having a government system could be helpful. However, check to see if the nonprofit has the information captured somewhere else, and consider how it could be formatted for your purposes or connected to your system.
If you ignore my first bullet and create a separate system, make sure this system is not a “black hole.” The worst example of this would be front-line staff entering case notes that they are not able to refer back to, the grantee can’t produce any aggregate report, and no insights are reported back from the funder. Yes, this still happens.
Help us advocate for data sharing. Help us gain the appropriate access to existing databases, rather than creating duplicate systems. If a nonprofit serves a school-based population, why not have some way to sync rosters? I’ve worked with programs where staff are responsible for attendance outreach, but they do not have direct access to attendance data,. As a result, they take attendance for the same students in TWO systems! In NYC, nonprofit community school leaders can access academic data through the New Visions data portal - how can that be expanded to other partnerships? And how can a system share data both ways?
Fund data quality, literacy, and integration. Most people who know how to create sophisticated, integrated data systems do NOT work at a nonprofit. But, nonprofits need this outside skill set to make sure systems are efficient. They also need internal capacity to: manipulate the data to answer questions, train staff to enter data, maintain systems as the work evolves, and develop the skill/will of staff to USE the data to improve. Few non-profits have dedicated full-time staff to assess performance.
Consider programming cycles when creating report deadlines. We know board meetings and fiscal years make it difficult to be flexible, but you also don’t want rushed and incomplete information. If you want to see outcomes for a college retention program, make sure the semester is over and there is enough time for staff to input the data.
Know your power. Here’s what’s tricky: nonprofits want to know how they stack up to help identify growth areas. However, they don’t want to do this in full display of funders. Anything you touch is high-stakes and could impact budgets, systems, and jobs. Improvement cultures grow in low-stake environments. Funders could help connect agencies to develop common measures, but make sure they are not punished for coming to the table.
Did I miss anything?