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No numbers without stories, no stories without numbers

Field Notes, MFG Archive

Peter Manzo, President and CEO of United Ways California, shares his insight on working with data in the nonprofit sector.


Philanthropoids, donors and nonprofit leaders want (and use) data for different reasons. Philanthropoids and donors hope to compare options and allocate investments while nonprofit leaders hope to learn and prove impact using data. But in all cases, the data they seek needs to tell a story and have a narrative in order to provide the full power for which it is sought.


The power of stories to animate data, to give people who aren’t “data geeks” a reason to care about data, was the focus of a recent Data on Purpose conference at Stanford, hosted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. I was fortunate enough to participate in a panel discussion on balancing qualitative and quantitative data with Lauren Shaugnessy from Habitat for Humanity and Jasmine Marrow from Guidestar.


The broader conference and our panel discussion highlighted some important points about the links between qualitative and quantitative data and storytelling. Presenters discussed the challenges nonprofits and social enterprises must contend with to gather and analyze data to share the stories behind them, and the tantalizing prospect of better information to inform data-driven decisions, about how best to allocate scarce resources – to develop efficient “markets for good.” Please indulge me as I share a few observations and examples on working with data in the nonprofit realm, through my experiences and how United Way is aiming to use data for good.


Stone Soup


Most challenges nonprofits address are complex, even when at modest scale. Increasingly, nonprofits like United Way and their partners are involved in collective impact which, when properly understood, means shared goals, shared accountability, shared metrics, and rigorous attention to measuring progress toward the goals.


In complex challenges, often no one party has all the relevant and necessary data, meaning that in many cases, collaboration and the sharing of data is imperative to success. Private nonprofits, government agencies (such as school districts or health departments), and researchers from academia or evaluation firms must work together to bring their contribution to the soup.


United Way of San Diego is the backbone for Every Student, Every Day an attendance initiative to reduce truancy in public schools. This initiative involves the school district, a university, county agencies, and community organizations. The initiative metrics include reading scores, family self-sufficiency, “touches” per family, and follow up rates and outcomes for referrals to partners. This initiative requires a range of skills and resources in order to bring the quantitative and analytical aspects of data into play.


Not surprisingly, the larger the scale of a data set or project, the more effort and resources are needed. In a project that involves multiple states or regional boundaries, the more complicated it gets. Consider how difficult it can be to compare and isolate factors affecting performance of school systems within a state, let alone across states. In these instances, data sharing and willingness to collaborate and share across organizations is key to successful program implementation.


People, Processes and Technology


To take in and make sense of data from multiple sources requires increased internal capacity, both in staff and tools. This level of investment, necessary as it is, can be out of reach for many organizations with smaller staffs and modest budgets, strengthening the case for open and combined data to support the social sector.


United Way of the Bay Area recently published “SparkPoint: 10 Key Findings” combining rigorous data analysis with powerful stories from their work helping low-income families make progress against 4 indicators of financial stability – income, credit score, savings and revolving debt. Data, findings and stories from sources like the SparkPoint study help us make our programs better, and by publishing our findings we are closing the knowledge gap and allowing others to learn and benefit from our work. United Way globally collects and shares representative examples of the work United Ways are doing in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, as well as North America, which can be seen here.


Ultimately the purpose of data work is to hold ourselves accountable to our missions. Beyond case management or eligibility/compliance systems, we should be able to access more data directly from clients in various ways (akin to remote health monitoring), which could make data less expensive and give us greater scale. There is a lot more potential power in technology. We should be using it to build and track relationships with families wherever we can, and we also should be using it to make data interoperable and more openly accessible.


Making meaningful change is the core reason for everything – it’s the reason anyone would want to support us financially, partner with us on programs, or choose to work with us as a career.  So when we’re asked, what does your organization do, you need to be able to say this is what we’re trying to achieve, and this is how we know whether we’re having an impact. In this Information Age, even organizations with very modest budgets should be able to provide data on this question (for a good example, see how United Way Northern Santa Barbara tracks improvements in early grade reading levels.)


(Qualitative + Quantitative Data) + Humility


Qualitative indicators can be just as valuable as quantitative data by giving life to the story. Quantitative analysis should help us determine which anecdotes are truly representative of the data, allowing for a story to be told.


There are different purposes for performance data, broadly broken down between data for learning, which is often closely held within an organization or a small circle of partners, and data for proving, data shared externally to demonstrate impact.


Especially in social change and community building efforts, it is essential to put data in the service of engaging people, rather than allow it to close off or obscure experiences, perspectives, and information. This takes humility. As an organization, we need to say “this is what our data, imperfect as they are, are showing us, what do you think?”


Across the country, United Way has been working with the Harwood Institute for several years to facilitate community conversations with residents, where we follow the belief that “if you can’t stand on a table in front of community members and tell them their aspirations, what they want for their community, accurately and with some comfort, then you haven’t done the work.” This kind of openness and understanding needs to both inform the collection of data and shape how we use it to engage community members.


Recoding The Tower of Babel


Let’s assume we could access reliable data about the impact of all public good projects. Would this access make the social sector more effective and efficient? Would it enable us to judge which projects had greater impact, to drive more resources to those projects?


Andrew Means, a presenter at the Data on Purpose event, made an insightful, humorous and impassioned case that it would. He argued that donors buy change, nonprofits sell change, and with better data we would begin to see more efficient capital markets for social good. He is absolutely right, but we are still a long way from realizing that dream.


While our capacity to quantify impact and make apples-to-apples comparisons is still quite weak, improvements in methods, systems, and technology make it much more possible to collect, analyze, and share performance data. Though our social markets may never be as efficient as economists’ models of efficient markets, they can be much better.



Peter Manzo is the President and CEO of United Ways of California. To learn more about Pete and his role at United Way, click here.

Click here to learn more about United Way and their work to improve health, education, and financial results for low-income children and families.