Data Playbook: A Measured Approach to Understanding and Telling Stories of Impact

There is a difference between having data and using data.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

By Rella Kaplowitz

Repair the World has one goal: to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. To achieve its mission, Repair relies on its programming to engage thousands of young adults every year in meaningful service opportunities. But the real magic of their work comes when they are able to inspire someone to go from one-time participant to serial volunteer.

So how do they accelerate this process? In a word: data.

Using a series of surveys and evaluations, Repair learned that once an individual participates in two volunteer opportunities, they are more likely to continue engaging in service regularly. Repair now has the knowledge it needs to direct its resources with confidence, make progress toward its mission and share this data for the benefit of the field in which it works.

Many purpose-driven organizations, like Repair the World, are committing more brainpower, time and money to gathering data, and nonprofit and foundation professionals alike are recognizing data as requisite to becoming stronger stewards of their missions and resources.

As Jake Porway, the founder and CEO of Datakind, says: “In the 21st century, the social impact organizations that embrace data and technology to amplify their impact, learn about their work, and adjust in real time, will do far more for their work and their issues than we may have ever seen before.”

And yet, there is a difference between having data and using data. Recent surveys found that most nonprofit professionals (94 percent) did not feel that they were using the data at their disposal effectively, and most foundation professionals (75 percent) did not feel that evaluations provided any meaningful insights.

It is in this spirit that our Foundation developed a new interactive resource to help more organizations harness the power of data to make smarter decisions, gain new insights and accelerate progress for the collective good of our communities.

The Data Playbook is designed to help users to make sense of the data they already have and to build upon it. Within the Playbook, you will learn about what data you need; how best to collect it; how to analyze it to meet your needs; how to present it; and how to use it to inform your work and tell your story. Whether you are looking for guidance on how to build a post-program survey, initiate conversations about metrics at staff meetings, make charts in your reports more compelling or hire a data expert, this resource has something to offer.

We developed the Data Playbook because we know firsthand that using data is easier said than done. Grounding organizational decision-making in data means changes to systems and work flows, to individual mindsets and organizational cultures. It is a shift that takes time, money and commitment from grantees, community stakeholders and funders who need to invest in building data capacity. It takes a willingness to pull back the veil and be honest about what is working and where we may be missing the mark.

Additionally, in many social change fields, our work is all the more challenging because we may be trying to measure things that are not immediately quantifiable. Our Foundation, for example, supports and creates initiatives designed to strengthen the Jewish identities and leadership capacities of young adults, which are difficult to gauge in the moment and take significant resources to measure over long periods of time.

Over the last few years, we have made a commitment to and investment in pushing forward on our data journey. We have developed a Jewish Leadership Index to help measure changes in Jewish identity and leadership over time, are investing in surveys measuring the impact of our programs, are working closely with our grantees to develop their data capacity and are partnering with others to support field-wide research.

We know the challenges are real and there is more work to be done, but we have learned that the value of working with data – particularly the right data – transcends them all. At its heart, data tells a human story. Behind every metric and every survey response is a real person who is looking to us to make a real difference in their life. Indeed, data illuminates the gaps we could not see before and challenges us to work collaboratively to fill them.

By turning to data, Repair the World was able to strengthen their programmatic work and take an important step toward ensuring more young Jewish adults are out creating a legacy of civic and social engagement. We are all capable of gathering similar insights, and we owe it to our participants and the communities we serve to do so.

After all, our work is critically important for shaping lives and strengthening communities. We are investing in the social and economic fabric of our neighborhoods, helping those in need at home and overseas, championing inclusion and diversity, and securing a more equitable future for our children and grandchildren.

Now is the time for all of us in the purpose-driven sector to commit to using the data at our fingertips to advance the broad range of fields in which we work, from education to health care, leadership development to social justice work and much more.

We hope that the Data Playbook will serve as a field-wide resource for organizations and foundations of all sizes, whether you are just getting started on your data journey or are looking to refine your approach. We hope you will use it to inspire discussion about, experiment with and ultimately leverage the power of data to more effectively tell the story and impact of your work. And we hope we can serve as partners in learning and that you will share any thoughts, challenges and successes as you use the Playbook.

We are in this together. Let’s get started.

Rella Kaplowitz is the Program Officer, Evaluation and Learning at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the author of the Data Playbook.

A version of this article appears in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.