Making Data a Little Less Scary for Jewish Nonprofits
By Dan Hazony
Many Jewish nonprofits fear data. Individuals who decide to go into nonprofit work are dedicated to making the world a better place, each organization through its own cause. The idea of tracking, metrics, and quantitative goals (with meaningful repercussion for failure) is very foreign, and goes against the ethos and corporate culture of most organizations. In the eyes of these professionals, data represents an Orwellian plot to empower lay leaders and top brass with opportunities where they can push a button and change the direction of an organization, or even worse, start firing people.
In 2008, NCSY hired me as the Director of Information Systems, a role that was quite foreign in the realm of Jewish nonprofits. My mandate was to “go build a database,” but no one knew what that meant. The initial goal was to determine how many teens were actually engaging on an annual basis, and from there we would figure out what to do with the data. As soon as I started to get to know my colleagues, they were extremely receptive to me as an individual, but I sensed that they envisioned management sitting at their computer screens refreshing their web browser all day, in the hopes of catching someone doing something wrong.
Unfortunately, this mentality is commonplace. As a result, we have permitted a Jewish nonprofit culture in which management conversations are often driven by emotion and flawed intuition. Inspiring anecdotes are empowering for nonprofit professionals to hear, validating their work by giving them a sense of satisfaction. This is an extremely poor method by which to regularly and carefully manage any enterprise, especially one run on charitable dollars.
In the best case scenario, organizations use surveys and studies to guide management conversations. While professionally commissioned studies are very important, they are expensive and cannot be carried out frequently enough to serve as a real guide for proper and ongoing decision making. They often reveal long-term attitudes and practice of participants, but not data that can help guide immediate action. Such studies are more efficacious in organizational missioning and the development of multi-year strategic planning.
One of the important distinctions that nonprofit professionals need to get into the habit of is differentiating between input, output, and outcome:
- Input – The resources used to build a product or program, including staff, venue, content, marketing materials, giveaways, etc.
- Output – The product is a sum of all inputs – in our case, it’s usually some form of program
- Outcome – The long-term intended habit or belief that is a result of one or multiple outputs
As a field, we have mastered the art of putting together reports that demonstrate the correlation between our outputs and intended outcomes. The driving force behind the development of such expertise is the requirement, or at least the significant predilections, of foundations and other major funders for objective program evaluation and management. There are firms and professionals who have built strong reputations as third-party evaluators in the Jewish space, and their work has helped guide many organizations towards goal-oriented decision making.
Taking on such in depth evaluation of an organization is not a small feat. Ultimately, the goal is to determine whether the organization is producing the correct outputs that yield desired outcomes in support of a specific mission. As a result, staff would look at one another and their constituencies and confidently declare “we are doing good and important work.” In a Jewish nonprofit world with a goal of having more Jews embracing their heritage, increasing their Jewish literacy and sense of peoplehood, this is not sufficient. We need to be asking ourselves on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, “What can I be doing to maximize my limited resources to do even more good and important work?”
Within NCSY, we have developed a robust system of goals, and the metrics to measure their achievement that are used as a means to measure our outputs, which we believe yield certain outcomes. We have also begun investing resources in more qualitative evaluation to determine whether our predictions of outputs resulting in specific outcomes are correct.
This entire mechanism works only because the majority of our staff is bought into the idea of data tracking. Our field staff are expected to enter information on a weekly basis about all the events that they run, and the teens who attend them. The dedication of the staff to enter this data does come at a cost; in many situations, it may mean 1-2 hours less per week that the staff person is interacting with his/her constituencies. In the long term, we believe that maintaining this system as a means to enable intelligent conversations about our outputs outweigh the impact of that additional hour a week of interaction.
It is by no means a perfect system, and it is something that management – both organization-wide and regionally – work together to improve upon regularly. However, the nature of our conversations have shifted from just being about that “awesome event we ran last week” (which is still discussed and celebrated) to a conversation about how each program and professional is doing relative to defined goals, and objective criteria measuring our success or failure.
Our professionals see that what started as a mysterious database did not evolve into a tool to fire people, but rather a mechanism to empower regular management conversations based on fact and reality. When areas underperform, our professionals now view it as an opportunity to track a problem and proactively improve it. Similarly, it gives us an opportunity to celebrate with one another when programs surpass our wildest imagination.
The inspiring anecdote that once governed NCSY and other Jewish nonprofit management is no longer the only means to build excitement among professionals, or inspire their continued commitment to the organization’s mission. Now, with data, there is an opportunity to set real goals, objectively measure them, celebrate when they succeed, and adjust when the results are not optimal. In an increasingly data driven world, what can give you more satisfaction?
Dan Hazony is the Director of Data and Evaluation at NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments about how to help more Jewish nonprofits become less afraid of data, or just the stories of others who are trying to build a more data-driven Jewish nonprofit space.