Building a Culture of Data for Decision Making By Elena Pinzon O’Quinn

Hi, my name is Elena Pinzon O’Quinn and I am the National Learning and Evaluation Director at LIFT. I have been a nonprofit internal evaluator for most of my career. The nonprofits I have worked with engage in ongoing performance measurement for the goal of using data for continuous program improvement. Stakeholders need to see and use data often to achieve this goal, ideally. But it doesn’t always work out this way.

As evaluators, we spend much of our time developing research questions, determining data sources, working through data collection processes, and performing analyses. Sometimes, the most important parts of the process – sharing the data, communicating results, and determining next steps based on those results, do not receive adequate focus and time. We must look for simple and efficient ways to share and use data.

I implore internal and external evaluators alike to avoid the trap of perfectionism when determining how and when to share data with its intended audience. There is a time and a place for a perfectly polished evaluation report. Most of the time, however, our programs need more rapid access to information. Focus on user-friendliness, jargon free writing, effective data visualization, and putting together a product that won’t take too long to turn around. Getting data into stakeholder’s hands is key to building a culture of data for decision-making. Get into the habit of sharing data often.

Hot Tips

  • Share your demographic and process or output data with stakeholders. No need to wait until that interim report is due or even until you have your baseline outcome survey analysis complete. Demographic data and process data serve an important purpose and begin to tell the story of your population and program.
  • Doing a multiple time point survey and only have the baseline collected so far? Share the results anyway, even without the change over time. Similarly, baseline data tells a story.
  • Share results even if you, as the evaluator, think the data is “dirty” or incomplete. Does this sound familiar? The team was supposed to survey 30 clients and only received 10 responses or 70% of respondents left one of the questions unanswered. You can include these caveats when sharing out. This also helps to start conversations about data quality and completeness, and can help with buy-in for data collection amongst program staff.
  • Focus on effective data visualization that summarizes key takeaways to facilitate discussion and feedback. For example, make your chart titles descriptive with the key takeaway message (I learned this from Ann Emery).
  • Keep your writing simple. Remove excess text and overly technical terms.
  • Use creative and varied formats for presenting data, especially formats that reduce the time burden on you, the evaluator.
    • Do away with the Word report altogether. Instead, facilitate a data walk.
    • Consider real time dashboards if you are using data management software, and schedule reports to go out to stakeholders via email periodically, especially if there are regular data check-in meetings on your calendar.
    • Keep the scope small and manageable. Bring the results of one question on a survey to your regularly scheduled program meeting and build in 10 minutes for discussion and next steps.

Don’t hesitate to get data into people’s hands. It will promote the culture you want to create and the more you do it, within reason, the better.

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