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Data Capacity Building Lessons Learned

By Kris Helé

More than ever, nonprofits need to assess, reflect on, sharpen and communicate about their work—to better meet their missions, satisfy demands from multiple stakeholders and ensure their sustainability. In this context, data are becoming increasingly valuable as currency across the nonprofit world. Yet, nonprofits’ ability to collect, understand and use data often falls far behind the needs. Most nonprofits stand to benefit from support to bolster their data quality, capacity and comfort in this era of big data.

Through our partnerships with many nonprofits and their funders over the years, we’ve learned a lot about building capacity for data, measurement and evaluation. Sometimes we show up at the table as formal evaluators and strategists, and other times, we are coaches, technical assistance providers and critical friends to our clients. Regardless of the role we play, these lessons continue to guide the support we provide to clients.

Remember that the nonprofit has the expertise. Nonprofit staff are the authority on their own organization, what information would be meaningful, and how to apply learning to facilitate improvements. By acknowledging the expertise our clients bring to the table, data capacity building is something we do with our clients, not to them.

Choose words wisely. Technical evaluation terminology can be intimidating and unnecessary in the nonprofit sector. We use words that resonate with our clients regardless of their experience and comfort with data. For example, we may use “learning plan” instead of “evaluation” and “indicators of progress” instead of “metrics” to make the process less daunting.

Ask, assess and adapt. Nonprofits need the right type of assistance, at the right level, for the right people, at the right time. We don’t stop assessing once the capacity-building process is underway—we ask for regular input, and then recalibrate our support, to best meet our clients’ needs.

  Validate, encourage and guide. Nonprofits often just need some affirmation of their own good instincts and a boost to their natural ability to learn and improve regardless of their formal expertise with data. We cultivate our clients’ evaluative thinking and help steer them to the options that make the most sense for their organization, needs and resources.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Nonprofits need to minimize the investment of time and resources and maximize usability, so it is important to build from existing data-related practices whenever possible (e.g., protocols, databases, reporting templates). We help our clients build soundly from past experience by helping ensure that existing systems and data are accurate, up-to-date and of high quality.

Document and share. Nonprofits need to focus on learning from data and measurement processes rather than scrambling to capture consultants’ every word, or worse, forgetting everything once the moment has passed. We document recommended methods, key tips and implementation guidelines to help sustain our clients’ capacity once the consulting relationship is done or staff turnover occurs.

For more information about Informing Change’s data capacity-building support and other aspects of our work, contact Kris Helé, Project Director, or visit our Building Data Capacity page.