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Nonprofits

Counting Aloud Together

A behind-the-scenes look at how grantmakers and nonprofits can work together to build a data-driven culture.

If you’re a nonprofit leader, you understand that the pressure to build data-informed practices—and to improve your services using data—has never been greater. You’re also strapped for the time and resources needed to enhance your organization’s systems and gain sophistication in reporting. If you’re a grantmaker, you’ve requested extensive reports from grantees, but you haven’t prioritized helping those organizations get more data for the sake of learning. You’ve invested in client services, but you’ve neglected to fund the structures that hold those services together—things like staffing, evaluation strategy, and up-to-date technology.

Tipping Point Community (TPC), a Bay Area grantmaker focused on poverty alleviation, and First Place for Youth (FPFY), a direct service provider that supports California’s foster youth, have worked together to build a data-driven culture since 2006. Our story illustrates what Matthew Forti and Alison Powell’s recent post on funders, grantees, and evaluation referred to as “getting better together.”

The grantmaker perspective: “We’re in it for the long-haul.”

Jamie Austin and Rebecca Cherin, TPC: When we decided to assist our grantees in improving evaluation practices, we lacked a strong understanding of what it takes for effective funder-grantee partnerships in this realm. Our journey began in 2006 with support to make First Place for Youth an early adopter of Efforts to Outcomes, a popular client-tracking tool.

We had little knowledge of the payoff of this investment but sensed the commitment of Executive Director Sam Cobbs, and took the risk. Through implementation and agency-wide adoption of the new database, we’ve invested $1.78 million to date (96 percent to general operating support). More well-heeled foundations have pledged their support for FPFY since our initial grant, allowing for tremendous growth and national recognition.

We’ve invested in other grantees similarly because of FPFY’s success. We recognize the high demand for robust data systems and the low funder support on this front. With targeted funding and management assistance, we help organizations learn from their own data and lay the groundwork for more rigorous evaluations.

We’ve learned the following:

  1. Creating a data-informed culture takes longer than you think. Changes in performance measurement come from long-term investments only. Many think that shortly after system implementation and adoption, proof is nigh. The truth is that important insights about programs and services arise two to five years after implementation at best.
  2. When considering investments in evaluation, leave the cost of summative studies to large, endowed foundations and government agencies that run control group comparisons. Focus instead on furthering a deeper understanding of programmatic data.
  3. Don’t underestimate the cost of this work. Successful projects require that organizations hire new staff, conduct organization-wide trainings, and customize software to reflect practices.

The nonprofit perspective: “Now we set the standard.”

Sam Cobbs, FPFY: When I first started as executive director in 2005, FPFY lacked important information about the foster youth we served. At the same time, our funders demanded complex reports about our clients and outcomes. We needed an internal shift to prioritize data from the frontlines up through management, and a difficult transition from our clunky old system to the new one began. We overhauled our theory of change and revamped our business practices. Tipping Point’s general operating dollars gave us flexibility to create a system to fit our needs and develop a culture that uses client data to better our services. Today, nearly 80 percent of our system’s functionality has been built by our staff.

Other funders, namely the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, played key roles in our growth, but Tipping Point’s investment laid the cornerstone. We challenge other foundations to ask grantees about needs in this area before requesting more data.

Here’s what we learned:

  1. Align funders around the importance of performance measurement. Ensure that each one understands the resources required for successful implementation. Ask that they talk to organizations that have excelled in this work.
  2. Implementing a database does not guarantee a data-informed culture or prove an intervention’s worth. Consistent data capture, analysis, and use make all the difference.
  3. With data comes greater understanding of impact, more confidence, and more interest from funders. Today, we lead policy discussions. Government agencies rely on our outcomes data to set benchmarks and allocate funding for services beyond housing like education and employment.

Our results over the last six years show the value of this work. FPFY has grown from serving 500 former foster youth in the Bay Area to 2,000 across 5 California counties. We’ve experienced a 6-fold budget increase, from $1.9 million to $11.7 million, and we have new insights about our services.

Our hope is that our story becomes common, that grantmakers see the need to invest in performance management infrastructure and support this poorly funded area, and that providers become more aggressive in using data to inform practice.

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