Empathetic Data: How Your Data Can Positively Impact Your Culture

By: Shaun Lee

Many successful nonprofits embrace the use of data to demonstrate impact, and yet there is still so much work needed to align the day-to-day missional work to the reports used to quantify impact. Often there is a significant feeling of dissonance between programmatic staff delivering direct care and the way their work is rolled up into reports and dashboards. Attempts to turn missional work into hard numbers sometimes feels like a dirty endeavor for nonprofits. Efforts to incorporate business templates and language can leave people delivering direct care feeling a bit icky about the organizations for whom they once felt very passionate about working.   

For organizations who are in the business of helping change lives, using data to demonstrate change can feel like it lacks empathy.  It’s common for social workers, pastors and direct service providers involved in human change to believe their impact is only felt at a heart level. The conversation about using data to prove impact doesn’t have to be an either/or conversation. By adopting the following principles, we’ve found there is an opportunity to do great person-centered work while also using data to develop a culture of learning that leads to an even deeper impact. Additionally, it can create an environment for the people involved to reflect on how to apply the principles and learnings to their lives outside of work-essentially developing the whole person.

Design Process Matters

One of the most meaningful ways to eliminate missional dissonance is to include direct care staff in the process of designing reports and dashboards. Following a human-centered design process will give stakeholders the comfort of knowing their voice and feelings are considered. It also allows for the people being served to have a voice and be considered, which further brings dignity and empathy into conversations about data.

Less is More

If there is too much noise it is challenging for people to understand what’s critical vs. what isn’t. How many times have you seen reports developed that never get used? Instead, start simple. Choose a handful of metrics that tell you how you are doing on your most important desired outcomes. Once you get in the habit of reviewing those metrics, learning and iterating based on the results, then move to the next level of granularity.

One Cascading Plan

Make sure to understand how any new reports or dashboards sync with existing data reports. At least one individual should have insight into all reports developed and reviewed. Otherwise, there is an opportunity to create a report that doesn’t fit or have an audience. Consider how annual goals connect to quarterly key results. Then consider how monthly outcome reports connect to weekly pulse checks. Every report should cascade and tell a story of impact from day-to-day operations to your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). If you can’t connect the data to impact, you are much more likely to create confusion than clarity.

Connect with Stories

Human change is about sharing and understanding client stories. Monthly outcome reviews or board meetings are an excellent opportunity to share a client story in narrative form. Often after hearing a client story, the numbers will have a deeper meaning and context.

Data as a Flashlight, not a Hammer

When reviewing data, lead with a spirit of learning. How can a key metric shine a light on a problem to be solved or a win to celebrate and replicate? All questions should be fair game, and everyone should feel safe answering honestly. If data review rhythms begin to feel largely punitive (like a hammer), learning will cease. When this principle is embraced there is an incredible opportunity for direct service staff and administrative teams to develop understanding and appreciation for each other’s roles in carrying out their shared mission. 

There is a way for deep, meaningful, person-centered work to co-exist with responsible information systems and structures, resulting in significant organizational alignment and clarity. Following the principles outlined above provides programmatic and administrative staff a framework to listen and understand each other. Increased understanding, provides a more meaningful story to tell through the captured information. When these principles are embraced throughout an organization, a learning culture emerges. The result is direct care staff who understand and are excited about their role shaping the organization’s impact story. Conversely, administrative staff realize they are dependent on those doing the direct care to effectively articulate their top-line results. When stakeholders move towards each other embracing the principles outlined here, it creates significant alignment and healthy communication that will go a long way removing missional dissonance that sometimes exists between the people being served, direct care teams, and administrative staff.

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