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Pillars For Managing Social Sector Data

ID-100135924In this continuation of our series on Technology, Scott Smith offers a “user’s guide” of sorts in this technologist’s view of what we need to build a robust infrastructure. He also challenges the sector to revisit specific perspectives on data practice to be sure that we establish durable pillars for our work.


We must remain vigilant that our desire to know is in lockstep with our ability to understand as well as our capacity to act.

Data are an important aspect of decision-making. It helps us determine what action is the most beneficial, which actions may bring on the most risk and it can even predict how our actions today may impact our future. In the social sector, data enables us to make critical programming decisions and properly direct our resources.

The angle of many in the social sector is to strengthen our infrastructure through the spread of more information and the utilization of advanced data management systems. These systems will be able to more accurately monitor and assess programs, which will help organizations develop more impactful services and assist more people. In my work at The Center on Communities and Education, I’ve come across a dozen or so systems that seemingly do very similar types of data management. Each can organize it, analyze it, store it and report it.

As impressive as these systems are, none of them can offer you the most crucial component, namely, an awareness about the data itself. Without critical reflection on the reasons for data, an organization will not be able to reap the benefits of having it.

In order for social sector data to become a meaningful part of our infrastructure, each organization, and the sector as a whole, must consider its intent for acquiring data, how it will help them grow, and the relationships needed to sustain the flow of information.


A keen eye on your organization’s mission and objectives will develop an awareness of the type of data you need. For each piece of data you wish to acquire, there should be a relevant link back to your mission.

A simple approach is to consider each of your programs and identify the specific outputs and outcomes you expect to occur after a person receives your support. Outputs will be change you can count, such as the number of participants, number of hours served or an improved grade average for core courses, and outcomes will be the observable changes in a person’s life as a result of your services, like a change in their focus, mood or lifestyle.

Developing awareness about your programmatic capacity will enable your organization to properly gauge which data you should collect, while also giving you clear direction about how you will use your data.

For example, each partner organization in The School Zone (TSZ) tracks data in order to develop program metrics that accurately detail the interventions and dosage an adult or child receives. These metrics are used to determine growth as result of their respective programs. Awareness about each program’s outputs and outcomes enables TSZ to measure its impact on the West Dallas community. Each data point reflects the organizations key programs and reinforces their mission; the data is relevant and seeks to support their work.


The (not-so) simple act of collecting data doesn’t spontaneously cause programming to improve; rather, the data will remain useless unless you develop a growth plan that will use your data to drive program development. Data generates a clear picture about the community you serve, and from it you can evaluate how well you’re serving the community as well as where you need to expand to improve your impact. By consistently measuring your program outputs and outcomes, you will be able to create benchmarks that demonstrate the progress your programs have had in improving the community you serve.

Once your organization knows more about their outputs and outcomes, then you can evaluate the gaps in your services. The data will tell you the range your programs have, which can then be analyzed to determine how you can extend your reach to help more in your community. If you know you’re able to serve X number of kids with Y amount of dollars, you can use that information to generate a growth plan to increase your capacity to serve more kids.

TSZ determined that it collectively serves ~2,200 of the ~6,000 students in West Dallas. Knowing the types of programs they provided, as well as the demographics of kids in the area, TSZ is working to connect more kids to quality resources such as academic support (tutoring, mentoring, after-school programs) and family/social support (food, housing, medical care, family counseling). TSZ is now able to close the gaps in their services by developing benchmarks that track progress towards increasing program enrollment, which will lead to providing more assistance to the West Dallas community.


Social Sector data, at its most basic level, is intimate knowledge about a family or child, and its special nature requires a strong sense of trust between that individual and your organization. Therefore, it is important that you are transparent about what data you will collect, why you want to collect it and how you are going to use it.

Before you start gathering data, it is imperative that you develop a clearly defined partnership between you and the people you serve. Being able to explain how collecting their data will allow you to improve your programs, and thus benefit him or her, is crucially important. Additionally, within your own organization, you need to be clear about how you will record data, when you will enter it and most importantly, who will maintain your data system.

If you are going to be receiving highly sensitive data, such as school or health records, you also need to consider Federal laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). These laws require parental approval and proper storage of data, which may exclude some data management systems. If you want to include this type of data, your system needs to be capable of not only storing it, but protecting it as well.

TSZ partners regularly talk with their participants about the importance of the data they are collecting, and draw the connection between its acquisition and improvements to programming. All steps of the data process should be well thought out before you move to any type of data management system. You need to gauge how your families will react to knowing that their data is stored online, or that aggregate reports will be written using data about their child. They have a right to know, and you have an obligation to inform them.

As the social sector moves aggressively towards a more data driven methodology, we as service providers must remain weary of moving too quickly towards a mindset that requests ‘data for the sake of data.’ Data systems are simply a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Remembering the human factor behind the numbers, and developing a strong understanding of how our programs will grow as a result of this knowledge, will lead to the creation of a social sector that can more efficiently serve the needs of its community.