Taming the data hodge-podge

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Facilitated by Josh Senyak, QuickSilver Consulting


"Great nonprofits need great information management." For sure. But in the real world, nonprofits have to manage their administrative and programmatic information with a hodge-podge of isolated software tools and services, variously tracking donors, volunteers, members, events, clients, services, satisfaction surveys, and more. If there's a CIO in place, these tools may be well selected and coordinated. But what about other nonprofits? How do they assess whether they've assembled the best tools for the job? How to get staff the information they need, at the lowest cost and with the least effort? In this session, participants will share experiences, wisdom and creativity gleaned working as nonprofit managers, staff and consultants and collaboratively propose solutions and best practices for taming the data hodge-podge.

Notes from Notetaker 1

Data Silos in Nonprofits and how to break them

Note: Data is like "stuff" - it can mean anything

The issue:

  • Nonprofits do not need what they used to
  • They used to need more simple database/software to track data - now it's much more complex
  • Organizations have different needs and use multiple services that they would like to talk to each other i.e. newsletter, surveys, volunteer management, services, donor database, CRM, CMS, etc.

Why it matters:

  • Data is hard and people don't always realize how hard it is to understand (not too hard that you can't do it, but it takes work)
  • Sometimes people stop when they realize how hard it is
  • For example: Charleston College has split up their Computer Science division into Computer Science and Information Science because they are treating it as a separate discipline because it really is its own issue

The key to breaking the issue is process and people

  • "The solution to integrating data is outside of a piece of software." (Josh)
  • Organizations must understand the process first - then software comes
  • Organizations do not tend to be process oriented - there is usually no one in the organization whose job is to think about processes
  • In the land of limited resources, it is such a heavy lift to change a platform
  • How much time are you actually wasting on an old system? Sometimes inefficiency is an option compared to the cost of stepping back and upending the process.
  • Sometimes the patient doesn't know their sick - you're in the muck and you don't know there's another way. Technology can contribute.
  • Steve - In my experience, the value the organization provides is often not involved in the process decisions
    • It is helpful to think in the context of: "I do this at my desk because it delivers x to our beneficiaries"
    • Start there or you get on a tangent very quickly

The Issue of Overcollecting Data:

  • Sometimes we have to fight "everybody wants to know everything"
  • Information has a cost - every extra question or data point has a cost
  • More data means more management, admin time, correcting errors
  • Most CRM systems come out of the box asking too many questions

The issue of not showing enough data

  • For instance: Salesforce the default is to create a silo of data between sales people so they don't see each other's stuff because of competition
  • Tools are theoretically designed to serve a capitalistic ethic - so we have to apply our ethic
  • Sometimes that can be useful to simplify information

On fighting the system and customizing:

  • Sometime organizations don't choose a software because of the 1% of their process that doesn't fit - and will build something custom because of that 1%
  • If we tried to build something that everyone could use - it might be so complex that no one could use it or so simple that people will opt out - there is a balance
  • Creating software for the 80% is more than enough to run your business - work arounds are what everyone does
  • The conversation has to start with "what are you trying to do?"

Asking: How is this data going to inform your decision making?

  • Many nonprofits use 10% of the data they have - how do we get there faster?
  • As a starting point - the database ought to reflect the actual organization
  • Often they won't go through the change of platform unless there is a problem that is pinching them
  • It's worth some of the organizational pain to get to the end goal

On getting buy in for a platform change:

  • People who can ask the uncomfortable questions make the best consultants.
  • Resource: Beth Kanter's new book "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" has chapters on getting organizational buy in
  • You need a champion inside the organization

Major principles:

  • Organizations must first understand your goals and process - the solution starts with process, not software
  • Consider why you are fighting the system - is it really worth the effort?
  • Fight overcollecting data - What are you really doing with this data? Should you collect this much data? Are they ways this could be misused? How will this change your decision making?
  • As a consultant: try and pitch something cheaper and simpler
  • The data should fall out of your work (you shouldn't spend as much time keeping score than doing your work)
  • To keep it working, you need a champion to own it (possibly a CTO) - one thing that helped with that was to ask questions and understand their pain points to make them hungry for the data

What we as developers can do to help the problem:

There are certain problems that we can't fix in organizations - how can we change our thinking to help them understand the big picture of the data:

  • Resource: The book "Nudge" discusses setting the defaults to change the conversation
    • What we're putting out there can be simplified to force the process conversation to defend why you need that instead of defending why it should be removed
  • Spend time on dashboards
    • Automate reporting
    • Focus on visualization to help organizations understand their data
    • Ask clients what reasonable benchmarks are (i.e. green, yellow, red barometer)
  • Help them visualize the process
    • Since we know it all has to start with the process
    • Visually map out process - what happens when a donation comes in
    • Use cross walks tool to show what people are collecting and figure out what is common

How do you minimize software? i.e. APIs, export into one place, etc.

  • It's all about incentives and pain - i.e. add carrots and incentives at all levels to convince people what works for you

Why are there silos?

  • Silos are coping mechanisms - in a complicated organization, silos help you get work done - you have to give incentives not to do it
  • Silos have walls on both sides
  • Silos can be effective for agile startups to see if it works - but you have to plan for a way to integrate back into the organization

Tools to help organizations understand process/workflow:

  • Some organizations do a quick consult - you can pay them to help map out and question processes
  • i.e. Questionaire - Here are the things you really need to think about

Tool to use: the theory of change process

  • Say out loud what the change is you believe you are going to create (2-3 sentences), then say out loud why you think you are going to create (2-3 sentences).
  • Then what is the actual stuff that you do that via that theory creates that change - then you can count and quantify that
  • Resource: Centerforwhatworks.org - Aggreagtes collective theories of change
  • Keep it simple - it is a theory that you must continually test
  • It can be a silo buster because the more you can agree the more commonality there is

Start at the End

  • Know what outcomes you are trying to achieve and what are markers of that
  • And most of the other stuff falls away
  • And have the faith that the work you are doing is creating that outcome
  • How are you measuring success? Shapes data solutions
  • A lot of people try to measure success that they have no logical connection to
  • Funders sometimes fill the void if you have not defined your goals and measures of success

Have someone internally who understand the change theory and the goals of the organization

Notes from Notetaker 2

SESSION CONTENT: Polarizing statement to gauge how group feels about data: The solution to the problem of data integration is almost not at all related to software.

If the data isn't informing your process. ORgs don't tend to be process thinking. Or, typically nobody in the org whose job is to think about process. So, tough to get the orgs to figure out process and work towards data systems.

At a resource strapped company, it's a heavy lift to change platforms.

Orgs don't often know how much time they're wasting with systems that don't talk to each other - consider the inefficiencies.

SOmetimes, the spreadsheet is the right answer. Sometimes big integration isn't the answer. Inefficiencies may not be so bad compared to the cost of revamping the system. Have to do the analysis first.

"The patient doesn't always know they're sick." - Scott

They don't always know there's another way. Technology can show there's a solution or package that can help them.

Everyone wants to know everything : re: clients wanting to collect too much data. Ever single extra option you give people, every extra questoin has a cost.

Salesforce is salesforce, not charity force. System setup so folks can see what's in their cue and see just enough to manage the data they need. Default is closed and not open for information. Incredibly powerful tools, but theyre designed to serve a capitalist ethic. But, we're working under diff't values. at gramien, had to re-engineer salesforce so that everyone can see everything. (Jonas & Steve)

Paying someone to take away some of the clutter of salesforce can be a huge cost/time saver for nonprofits - if the tools aren't needed.

The tools have to be everything for everyone to be viable in the marketplace which means out of the box, they have too much functionality.

How do we help folks connect data to their missions - their goals?

How have orgs used the data? Stefanie - most of the npos in her experience only use 10% of the data they collect

Jonas - starting point is that database should actually reflect the organization, its structure, and how it interacts with people.

Beth Kanter's new book has couple of chapters on getting organizatoinal buy-in around accepting new systems (Networked Nonprofit)

What safeties will be put into place to protect data?

Shouldn't be spending more time keeping score than doing the work.

It's hard for someone on the outside to come into an org... You need someone on the inside, like a CTO, who has a close relationship with the decision-makers in the organization. Solution starts with process, not software. Have to talk to all in org to understand processes before making recommendation on software. TO keep it working, need an empowered person within the organization.

THere are certain problems we can't fix - like crazy ED. What we can do is to think about the guiding principles where we can make a difference. Hard for people sometimes for people to understand how the data affects their systems.

Scott - Book, Nudge. If set the right defaults (software), you can change their process by changing the conversation. We can set our defaults as simple to force the process conversation.

Stefanie - Data solutions - are their simple data collection solutions for small nonprofits? THings to avoid? Tips? How can they use data to make social change if they have no money?

Jonas - Most of these tools have dashboards - we could focus more on buidling useful dashboards and automated reporting. FInd out the reasonable benchmarks.

THe visualization part is important. Sometimes looking at all that data is overwhelming. It'd be good, too, to bring the visualization idea into the process part - mapping it out. Everyone can read a process diagram fairly well. This can help signal ways to adjust workflows appropriately.

Can show how various tasks are collecting the same data, etc.

VIsualization tools help people understand how things work and to see where commonalities are.

Example of an org in portland that had 20 programs and was using 21 diff't databases.

Josh - the problem isn't the platform.

Jonas - had good experience with salesforce consultant - help to eliminate particular functions

Theory of change process is essential - STeve - issue with social justice orgs is there isn't always a quantifiable outcome. But, there's stuff they do that can be counted that is connected to impact. Say the change. Say why you want the change. Say what you do that via that theory creates that change.

PRocess has to be simple.

Theory of change process can also be a silo buster.

If you know how you're measuring your outcomes, you know what data to collect. There's a space for super-consultants who understand technology and NPO systems and workflows to help NPOs figure all this stuff out.

Talked a lot about workflows and processes as opposed to software.

Resources: Center for What Works - good job of showing various theories of change