Authored By Stefan Byrd-Krueger and Jessica O’Neal, Senior Director Editorial and Digital Strategy at NRECA

In a recent Stanford University survey, nonprofit leaders and staff said inadequate measurement of organizational performance is today’s top challenge facing their sector. It’s an issue we’re deeply familiar with in our respective roles as a nonprofit data consultant and a digital strategist at a trade association. While there are often technical barriers to better use of data, in our experience the bigger problem is a cultural one—the absence of widely held expectations that data should be guiding decision making across all levels of an organization 

This is unfortunate because we’ve learned that the benefits of being data-driven are clear. Relevant data on performance enables organizational learning based on shared understanding of what’s worked (and hasn’t worked) in the past. Data provides an objective basis for celebrating successes. And successful, evidence-based decision-making rewards innovation and can help organizations respond more effectively to changing circumstances.

For these reasons (and more), our two organizations recently partnered on work to help the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)–a trade association that represents the interests of 900+ not-for-profit cooperatives–put data and analytics at the heart of its strategic communications. The process taught us some valuable lessons on how to create a data-driven culture in the context of a complex nonprofit. We believe these lessons are relevant to mission-driven organizations interested in data as a catalyst for transformation, regardless of size.

Lesson No. 1: It’s certainly helpful when a mandate for culture change starts at the very top—but nonprofit leaders can  seed positive change wherever they are on the organizational chart.

Traditional change management theory stresses the executive’s primary role  in conveying the importance of change and in empowering subordinates to shift their practices and expectations. Indeed, active support from the top is invaluable for an organization-wide effort. Fortunately, our experience also suggests that department heads have the ability to create meaningful change regardless of where they sit–and that such change can ripple outward well beyond the originating team.

At NRECA, the Digital Strategy team partnered with ParsonsTKO to strengthen its data and analytics practice. One of the first deliverables was a “social media intelligence” dashboard to help the team track the effectiveness of its outreach and adjust messaging based on what’s resonating with members and policymakers. The social media team had grown used to working based on intuition alone, but quickly appreciated seeing the impact of their work reflected in hard data. A critical turning point came after they lovingly nicknamed the dashboard “Smitty”. Soon enough, they were evangelizing about “Smitty” to other departments about “their Smitty” – and then they started fielding an increasing number of requests to replicate their dashboard for other departments who track analytics. Having been deeply involved in its creation, the Digital Strategy team had the motivation and capacity to create their own version of Smitty for their own uses. As of this article,  fourteen “Smitties” have been rolled out including one that measures content around a specific organizational priority/campaign and one that analyzes how users are registering for events. 

Lesson No. 2: Data-driven cultures blossom when people feel comfortable asking (and being asked) lots of questions

Building a culture of data means creating a professional environment where people are encouraged to ask questions and ask for evidence. At the same time, leaders have to make it OK for everyone to be able to say, “I don’t know, and I need help finding out.” A lot of paralysis in the world of data and analytics stems from fear—the fear of asking silly questions or being resented by people reluctant to take on the responsibility to answer them. Even when analyses yielded no finding, the mindset and process of conducting them often reveal unexpected insights.

Needless to say it is the job of leaders to encourage and model data curiosity. However, in order for this phenomenon to take root, there needs to be an initial effort to democratize useful data that already exists. This means equipping team members with at least a limited amount of relevant, actionable data that stimulates their thinking and shows what’s possible. This helps create a demand for further information and evidence.

At NRECA, a clear sign of progress came when communications team members started asking insightful performance questions, based in part on initial data that showed previously hidden insights. We didn’t immediately have all the answers, but staff understood that it was their responsibility to support their opinions with data when possible—and to ask for new data when it wasn’t. We then did our best to track down answers.

Lesson No. 3: Embed actionable data into your team’s most important decision-making processes and meetings

In order for data to inform business decisions, it’s essential to start with the key decisions your team handles on a regular basis. Within NRECA’s communications department, our respective teams identified three key areas where better data could significantly improve the quality of existing decisions:

  • Editorial planning—which types of digital content are worth investing in?
  • Campaign planning—how do we improve the effectiveness of marketing campaigns in driving concrete actions?
  • Website development—how can we deepen online engagement among our most important stakeholders?

With these priorities in mind, we worked on finding relevant, actionable metrics to feed into each decision. This may sound straightforward, but it’s actually a difficult step. The temptation is strong for nonprofits and associations to rely on “vanity metrics” (like number of visitors, or hours of technical assistance provided); these are readily accessible but may not relate directly to business objectives or show real outcomes and impact. NRECA stopped reporting certain metrics that are known to be low value. Instead, the association continues to figure out how best to configure data. Having a better understanding on how to target data on specific topics or products has led to a more focused approach to reporting data to the “c-suite” and other senior leaders.

After good metrics were identified, we created simple dashboards that summarized the data in a straightforward way that even non-nerds could easily understand. These were designed to integrate seamlessly within existing meetings and production processes. Suddenly, we found that data became the star in these meetings!

Lesson No. 4: Delegate responsibility for data and analytics to a dedicated staff member—and then empower this person with the capacity and authority to make practical changes.

Let’s be honest. The vast majority of the resource-strapped nonprofits and associations we know will never have the money to hire a full-time data scientist or analyst to own the data analytics function. Even if they did, there’s no guarantee this would lead to a data-driven culture. Happily, we’ve found that it’s often enough to give at least one existing staff member explicit responsibility for promoting data usage. If chosen strategically and equipped with the tools and resources to make a difference, this person can propel a substantial change in the attitudes and behaviors of peers.

At NRECA, where change blossomed at the departmental level, one staff member was perfect for this charge. As part of his duties, he tracks and reports analytics with an insatiable curiosity for data, but he was mostly self-trained. ParsonsTKO helped instill a sense of excitement and ownership for building internal data capacity, which has helped him flourish in this role.

It is the job of leadership to make sure that all team members–not just one dedicated resource–develop the skills and inclination to focus on data usage. Still, it does help to designate a specific person as responsible for the advancement of data at the operational level  and  to implement tasks that might otherwise be overlooked. Because this expertise may not exist in-house, it can be helpful to pull in an external consultant to facilitate initial steps and create a framework that drives the broader change process in a positive direction.

Overall, our experience shows that culture change is possible, even at nonprofits with few resources. Tech vendors may tell you to consider a brand-new data system or software package, while some institutional funders will prefer a randomized evaluation. These may be good ideas, but neither is essential to progress towards building a data-driven culture. The most important ingredient is your intention to integrate data into your significant decision processes, coupled with an upfront investment of time and resources that support this intention. Nonprofit leaders at all levels of an organization can exercise data leadership that strengthens their social impact.