Do Good Data recap: If I keep no record, I can assume I succeeded.

Do Good Data recap: If I keep no record, I can assume I succeeded.

Last week I attended the Do Good Data conference in Chicago. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I registered for the event.
Currently my data management skills extend to drawing information out of Google analytics and trying to remember the difference between mean, median, and mode.

Even though I’ve forgotten nearly everything from my single college statistics class, I’ve recently been making an intentional effort to develop data skills.

  1. It’s easier than ever. These days you really have to go out of your way to ignore the data and tools available to you, often for free.
  2. The prospect of better decision-making is pretty exciting. I don’t know about you, but I love having something other than my gut to go on.
  3. It’s the future of the sector. Andrew Means, the organizer of the conference, said it best: “We’re here because our world is facing huge problems with limited resources.” It’s imperative that we get better at managing those resources, and effectively collecting and analyzing data will be critical to our sustainability over the long-term.

With these things in mind, YNPN has been exploring how to better utilize data in our work. Over the years YNPN has collected and compiled data from our members to highlight what’s happening at the grassroots of our sector. The results have definitely been worth the effort, but they’ve also been sporadic due to the amount of work and coordination involved.

As an organization, we’re working on integrating data and measurement into our day-to-day functioning not only so that we can more easily report out on the experiences of our members and amplify their voices, but also so that we can be more effective in our own decision-making and strategy.

As I’ve begun to explore these topics more, I’ve noticed that there are some in the sector who feel uneasy about the increased attention to data and measurement. They fear that their work will be reduced to a series of equations. It’s not an entirely unfounded fear--big data has become a business buzzword and many believe that if information is power, more information must mean more power. (Even though that isn't always the case). Large portions of the for-profit sector seem to have already moved to a quantify or die mentality.

What I loved about Do Good Data was that there was an understanding and an appreciation that not everything can be measured. This conference was not about how we can cram the expansive and sometimes intangible work of the nonprofit sector into rigid algorithms; it was about how we apply sound data principles and evidence-based decision-making to our work to make it better.
And this perspective is an incredibly healthy one that I think bodes very well for the sector.

I came to the conference pretty sure that data skills were worth investing in, but I left positive that they are too critical to ignore. Here are a few of my key takeaways from the conference:

  • When you have scarce resources, it’s critical that you use them in smart ways. Data helps us use our resources for maximum impact.
  • We have so much to learn from each other. Instead of being afraid to talk about our failures, we should be sharing information so we can learn from each other’s mistakes.
  • Measuring our impact can help us move towards approaching our work as investments that will provide a measurable return, rather than as charity that is a good in itself.
  • Use data to make decisions. If you don’t know, experiment.
  • Measurement should be about the value you create, not just accountability. If you use your data only to report out, you’re missing out on huge opportunities for improvement.
  • One of the presenters shared this quote: “If I keep no record of what I do, I can always assume I’ve succeeded.” - Stephen Colbert  If you’re not measuring what you do, you don’t really know if you’re succeeding.

In addition to all the fabulous insights, I loved that the conference was diverse in terms of gender, race, age, and role within the organization. That was true not just in the audience, but on stage as well.

I’d highly recommend attending this conference next year. I know I plan to. In the meantime, here’s a few people and places to follow to get your data fix:

Andrew Means: The organizer of the conference and founder of its parent organization, Data Analysts for Social Good

TinySpark: A podcast by journalist Amy Costello that takes a critical look at the business of doing good

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty: This book was mentioned by Amy Costello during her keynote and is a great example of the importance of looking critically at well-intentioned efforts to solve social problems

Maria Kim, President & CEO of The Cara Program: I was so impressed by Maria during the two panels I saw her appear on. She had some great thoughts on measuring impact, which you can get a small taste of on the Cara Program website.

Jason Shim: I left Jason's breakout session super-inspired to find more ways to integrate data and especially experimentation into our communications work. I'll definitely be keeping up with his work.

The Science of Philanthropy Initiative: John List from the Science of Philanthropy Initiative at the University of Chicago gave a fantastic keynote about some of the work they've done that's exploded conventional wisdom about fundraising and the nonprofit sector. Definitely an organization to watch for innovative research.

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