Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Turning Data into Action

There are days when I am confronted with a blizzard of data. It can leave me feeling either disorganized or stuck. And I sometimes see others caught in this storm – some contending with heady emails or a commissioned report, or others with a friendly offering from a mission partner or a trusted source. I see it in boardrooms in piles of spreadsheets or board packets the size of days-gone-by phone books. The intentions are good. More data means more information, right? But if we are in the blizzard and don’t know what to do with this data, is it helping us? Have you been caught in this storm? Do you find yourself knowing that you are supposed to do something with it, but what?

There is also another kind of storm that can be equally overwhelming. This storm feels like an ominous void. Its characteristics are marked by overarching sentiments that look like “The Truth” but lack any data or information. Often these truths gloss over critically important issues or create bias that is both dismissive and harmful. In this storm, decisions are made in a void and the impact is real on you, your neighbor, your community, or the world with equally dizzying effect. Policies, regulations, budgets are adopted and systems are reinforced with abandon. I don’t know about you but enduring either kind of storm for too long feels frustrating.

So what are we supposed to do with data that exists and how can we commit to asking better questions when it doesn’t?

We have been learning to answer these questions over the last many years at Foraker as we are both the producers of data and the consumers of it. One of the lessons we have learned is that data is only as good as its ability to move to information then to knowledge and finally to action. Data for the sake of data keeps us lost in the blizzard.

Looking deeper at the transition from data to action brings us some clues about how to ensure we are moving out of a storm and into clarity. Some signs you might have noticed along the journey include getting your data and moving immediately to information by saying “so what?” “So what did I learn?” “So what do I know now?” “So what does it matter?” Asking “so what” gives meaning to the data and begins to place it in the context of our questions. And the more we do this with our team the more likely we are to create a framework for real information. The knowledge stage means that we are open to taking in the data and the new information and putting it to work. This stage is often accompanied with the question “now what?” “Now am I smarter on this topic? “Now am I better informed on an issue or better positioned to make a decision?” “Now am I engaged and energized?” “Do I now feel ownership of it?” The action stage shows up when we literally make a move toward something better – a better decision or a better policy, direction, goal, partnership, or relationship. We use it. The other day I heard a friendly suggestion that the next step after action is evaluation. This iterative process gets us back to our data and is in essence the root of all continuous improvement practices. Friendly reminder taken.

But let’s get back to our journey of data to action.

As I mentioned in last month’s newsletter, we have been in research function at Foraker. My quiet fear was that we were going to produce more data but not see any action. Ironically, this fear came to me as I looked at the results of one of the pieces of research we completed. In producing the Northwest Nonprofit Capacity Report we worked with four other state associations to assess a number of capacity issues in our sector. Rather surprisingly we learned that nonprofits across the Northwest are collecting data but the primary use of this data is reporting it to our funders. Too few of us are using what we collect to make better decisions. We are not turning our data into action. Does this sound familiar? We have done the hard work of collecting the data. We have dedicated staff time to turning it into information and created the opportunity of knowledge transfer through reporting it – but that’s it. We move on. We file it instead of sharing it – all that data and information and no internalized knowledge or action to improve our missions. How can we fix that? What’s happening in our shops that gets us to this place? These are the things I was contemplating when we released our reports. The good news may be that we have this new information about what’s happening in our organizations and we are moving into the knowledge stage by asking “now what.” “Now what will we do with the new data?” “How will we use it?” “Will we use it at all?” “How can we help make it have meaning in our busy day?” I’m ready to move us to action and see what we learn.

What would happen if you shared your data? I know you have it. Maybe it’s profound or simple but you have it. Can you turn it into information? Who knows about it inside your organization? Does the board know? How about your full team? Who else would benefit from knowing about it? How could they turn it into knowledge and action? How could it inform the world you are working to create? We often say our work is a best-kept secret. We are literally saving lives and improving our communities and our planet every day and few know about the work we are doing. We are at times our own greatest barrier to success. This might be one of those times. You did the work. Don’t let it be a secret. Consider posting information on your website. Consider delivering meaningful information at a conference or meeting. Consider how it might inform public policy.

One note of caution as you move from data to action. There is a time and place for heaps of data. But if you want to share it, I cannot more strongly recommend that you wrap it into a story. Remember the goal is to get out of the blizzard where we are pelted with data points and into a place where we can get to an emotional connection. Stories are our path to action with our investors, our partners, and even with ourselves.

So what do we do when there is no data but we can see stories emerging based on anecdotes? I don’t believe that it is either helpful or advisable to measure everything – again that’s how we get in the blizzard. But we must ask ourselves hard questions when the data we do see paints a picture that glosses over or even ignores the inequities in our communities, or is used to make decisions that sound so simple and have the power to be so devastating. As our state teeters on an economic cliff, my call to action to each organization I encounter is “do your math.” Then we talk about the need for nonprofit leaders to understand the real numbers of any proposed budget cut. It’s not the simple answer that one hears. Because a 10% cut to the state budget for some of you is really a 30% or 40% or more cut because you lose your ability to leverage those dollars to other resources. But that isn’t a sound byte and it requires we invest our resources to take our data into action. Without it, the sound byte wins.

Let me give you a neighborhood example about why getting and sharing missing data is so vital to our communities. We see that data can lead to social action and in turn has the power to set policy. One often touted data point is that the neighborhood where Foraker lives (Mountain View in Anchorage) is the most diverse neighborhood in America. This is a cause of celebration but it’s also been a way to quickly move on. We have to take that data and ask “so what?” because if we don’t, we can never get to the real conversation of “now what?” Only recently are nonprofit and local government leaders looking closely at that data and bringing their own data to the larger conversations. Because of this, a new story with new questions is emerging. This story is really not about diversity, it’s about equity and inclusion. It’s about the disparity of unemployment in our city, the disparity of public transportation, the disparity in access to healthcare, and many other data points that are too quickly washed over. This is a story of our neighbors. Thankfully there is a growing number of people who are not just using their own data for themselves but they are bringing it into the open and sharing it so that we can all ask better questions and get better answers. I believe this will lead to better public policy for all of us. This could be you, too. You can ask the better question when you see overarching data. You can ask what story is missing. You might not have the capacity to do the research. That’s okay. It starts with asking the question out loud. The next step is finding a partner or many partners to take the research step with you.

A small example of this is our recent report on the gender pay gap in the nonprofit sector. Likely all of you know the glass ceiling is real and the gap is present. Some of you may know that the YWCA of Alaska has an initiative to end the pay gap for women in Alaska by 2025. As part of their effort they approached government leaders and for-profit and nonprofit businesses in Alaska and asked each of us to sign on to the effort to close the gap. Our board asked hard questions and looked closely at the existing data, which is not as good as it should be in 2016. The result of these conversations was that signing on to the initiative was not good enough. We needed to commit to finding the missing data on the Alaska nonprofit sector and helping to turn it into action for all of us. Last month we released the first ever report on the gender pay gap in our sector, coupled with our 2016 salary and benefits results. Could it be more comprehensive? Yes. But for the first time, we have some better data to move us toward better action. This is just one example of what to do when the data that you see is clearly not telling the whole story.

There is so much unrest in our country and in our state. I see how data alone is not bringing us comfort. I see nonprofit leaders craving information and knowledge so they can prepare to take action, In the absence of that information I see a hunkering down for the blizzard of another kind that awaits us. I see the void of information as equally chilling. And yet, every few days, the sun comes out and new stories and new efforts emerge as board members and nonprofit and community leaders ask better questions, demand better data, and invite all of us to take action.

What data do you have? What is your next step toward action?