Freeing Communities From the Burden of Extra Data Collection

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Tips for Finding Existing Data and Putting it to Good Use

Tips for Finding Existing Data and Putting it to Good Use

By Patricia (Patty) Montaño

Years ago in graduate school, I led garden tours for children and shared my enthusiasm for plant ecology and evolution with them. The university’s greenhouse would host school groups throughout the year so kids of all ages could get up close to wonderful and fascinating plants.  To my delight, the children sent me short thank you notes, with adorable drawings. After receiving ten or more at a time, some aspects jumped out. The children would draw specific plants I had mentioned during the tour, like the Venus flytrap, but not other plants. Inadvertently I had information about what the children had taken away from the field trip, what they found to be most memorable. As an educator I could use this information to improve my communication and try to make the other plants on the tour just as fascinating as the Venus flytrap (which I would feed small insects to during the tours).

Abundant sources of information exist within and around nonprofit organizations that are just waiting for nonprofit leaders to put to good use.

Abundant sources of information exist within and around nonprofit organizations that are just waiting for nonprofit leaders to put to good use. Using these sources of existing data can sometimes ease the burden of collecting information from communities while still informing programs. Here are just a couple that can be harnessed.

  1. Dig deeper into your communications platforms. Web analytics, can tell us about number of pages visited, number of views, duration of time on a webpage, number of clicks, and other types of data. But you can also go to the next level of depth and look at any themes that emerge from the comments left on social media platforms. At Vantage we recently looked at comments educators left under Facebook posts to see the reactions and relevance of the content to their teaching experiences. When looking at comments keep in mind that the number of comments does not necessarily correlate to a level of engagement; there might be a small set of individuals willing to post a comment and a larger number who don’t post comments at all.

    Some organizations create and track unique hashtags and can look at all the tweets, posts, and photos associated with that hashtag. Online hashtag tracking tools can provide visuals for activity over time, reach, and even show who is using the hashtags you are tracking. For example, at Vantage we use #LearningDriven to track reactions and comments to our CEO Elena’s recently published book The Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot.

    Photographs shared on Pinterest and Instagram can be useful to track what people pin from your website, or to see how visitors document their experience. For instance, an education nonprofit, like a museum, can search for photos on Instagram and track hashtags to see what galleries were walked through and what objects visitors found interesting. Photographs shared on social media can provide insight into participant perspectives, what is remembered, and what is valued as shareable. If analyzing images from Instagram sounds interesting, then providing opportunities to take and share photographs (plus providing the hashtags you want individuals to use) is key.

    Photographs from your communications department or archives that are used for outward-facing communications can also be useful sources of data. Photographs can tell a story of the program and community at one point in time, or be compared over time. Within their archives, your local library, museum or historical society can have photographs and oral histories of the communities you engage with for a retrospective look at programs and social issues.

  2. Take a second look at your meeting notes. If your nonprofit has the practice of scheduling program debriefs or after action reviews among staff, you can keep track of these group reflections to see if themes emerge over time on what works, what might not work, challenges, and documentation of how your nonprofit programs have changed and adapted.

    You can also use administrative records as sources of data. Archived logs and budgets can show how similar programs or activities were planned in the past, and can include copies of agendas, supplies bought, and registration sheets. Registration information can provide important information about the number of people who attend events, dates, locations, and even some demographic information, if asked. If during registration the purpose of attendance was requested, this can provide another level of understanding about reasons for participation. And even notes from nonprofit board meetings can have important data about why decisions were made and when, and how organizations or programs have evolved at critical moments.

Data are all around us and we’ve only touched on a few sources of existing data in this post. What’s one way you’ve used existing data and what did you learn from it? Connect with us and let us know!


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Patricia (Patty) Montaño, MS, MA | Evaluator

Patty deploys evaluation to elevate participant voices by methodically weaving together different perspectives and data sources.


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