Putting Data to Work: How to Get Started

By Katie Grills

I’m decidedly not a numbers person. The funniest things happen during the course of our career development, though, and drag us kicking and screaming into skills and experiences we end up loving.

My appreciation for metrics developed while working at Creative Action, an arts-based education organization in Austin, TX. Creative Action had a fantastic data management system at their disposal, and as I began recruiting and managing volunteers, I noticed it was not being implemented to its fullest potential for tracking and rewarding volunteers. I made it my mission to get to know the system and how to best use it, and implemented volunteer data tracking tactics that would hopefully enrich the organization’s image of who their volunteer population was.

This position taught me the value of putting a data-centered plan in place. Aligning recruiting efforts with diligent data collection helped establish a replicable system that collected easily retrievable information for use in grants and reports.

Here are some suggestions on how to begin assessing the state of any organization’s data landscape and how to manage blind spots.

1.)  Figure out what it takes to access the data you need. You might be the person tracking metrics around work in your department, or you might have to report numbers to a superior. To access the data that could enhance your project, you need to figure out the best strategy for getting access to your organization’s systems. Present your desire to see the numbers as a way to improve your program or performance, then work with the right people to get access. This might involve obtaining a username and password from an office manager or simply finding spreadsheets on your organization’s file server.

2.)  Dig through collected data with a creative eye.  How could you be using those in-kind donation numbers from last year to form achievable goals for the next? What if you were able to leverage volunteers who indicated an interest in development work to help you reach those goals? Look at the data you find analytically and ask questions of it, but also be sure to leave room for the possibilities of what can be done with what is—or isn’t—there.  Be sure to jot down data that is missing that you might wish to collect.

3.)  Refrain from being myopic. Even if you’re lucky enough to have an organization that is already data-obsessed, there are no limits on what information could be helpful for your program. Is there a question about your served population that is only partially answered by the plethora of data you found? Write down what data should be collected, and suggest it be incorporated into a survey or other data-collecting effort. When data storage is cheap and easy, there should be no limit on what you collect—pictures, narratives, numbers, anything should be game, and anything can be a part of a rigorous, data-driven planning process.

4.)  Review your findings with your supervisor and department. Assessment of data is a valuable task that could yield a fantastic return for a small time investment. Make sure to carefully and creatively present findings from your data to your supervisor and department before moving forward. Presenting the findings from data, as well as the blind spots, in an accessible, reasoned, and mission-centered report or presentation will prove that your work is an asset to the organization, and that planning an initiative around it is time well spent.


Miss Katie’s first post on putting data to work?  Find it here.

Katie Grills recently moved to Washington, DC from Atlanta, GA, where she was Marketing Communications Manager at Emcien Corp. and a volunteer feature writer for TEDxPeachtree. Before a year in Atlanta, she served as an AmeriCorps member for two years in Austin, TX. She is looking forward to jumping back into the nonprofit world after a brief and informative departure into the world of high tech startups.

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