Getting Great Data Week: Capacity building with funders: Lessons learned from helping nonprofits build data systems by Nick Arevalo

I’m Nick Arevalo from Tipping Point Community. I work on the Impact Team for a foundation in San Francisco that invests in poverty-fighting nonprofits. At Tipping Point, we believe that money alone isn’t enough to build strong organizations. Besides contributing unrestricted dollars, we work with nonprofits to identify areas of need and respond with customized capacity-building support to help them increase their impact.

For almost a decade, I’ve helped our grantees work on key challenge areas, and building out data systems is one that has come up often. A functional data system is a key tool nonprofits can use to monitor program performance, identify trends and make adjustment to their program model to more consistently help clients attain the program’s intended outcomes (e.g. permanent housing placements, college degree attainment). In many cases this is also the initial step many nonprofits can take toward more rigorous evaluation.

Lessons Learned:

When we first started building data systems with our grantees at Tipping Point, we played little or no role beyond hiring a consultant, the “technical expert.” After several, far-from-perfect implementations, we realized that our hands-off approach wasn’t working.  Here’s what we did to get better:

  1. Pressure test the grantee’s theory of change – Before we even start to discuss any new system, we realized every nonprofit should have a clearly and comprehensively articulated theory of change, which maps out the program model, outputs and client outcomes. Trying to implement a data system without strong logic models in place is a harrowing experience. If a nonprofit needs a stronger theory of change in place, we will connect them to a consultant to help with this before moving on to the data system. 
  1. Offer choices to find the right partner(s) – One implementation partner does not fit all work styles and experience levels. We now help grantees vet possible data systems and partners, and ask them to make the final selection on their technical expert of choice.
  1. Stay involved during build out – In the past, we wouldn’t be involved besides writing a check. We’re now connected during the process, reviewing project milestones and helping the grantee make course corrections, if needed.
  1. Realize the new system will not be learned in a day – Once the data system goes live, the real fun begins. We’ve learned that grantees need help using the system – this is more than new software, in many cases it’s a completely new way of conducting Nonprofits typically need to support their front-line staff as they become familiar with the system and integrate data capture into their routine. To make these implementations successful we now provide coaching support to the grantee’s leaders and managers to help them identify ways to use the data to nurture meaningful conversation about program performance and potential adjustments for improved client outcomes.

Rad Resource:

Does your organization need a refresh of its theory of change? In Working Hard–and Working Well, Dr. David Hunter shares a processes he developed to help nonprofit organizations find their North Star.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Getting Great Data Week. All posts this week are contributed by evaluators who came together to write about the theme of getting data that is accurate, timely and most of all useful. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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