Last year I started an ESRC funded programme of ‘strategic data use’ workshops with nonprofit organisations. I wrote a blog called ‘Starting a programme of strategic data use workshops’ in which I said I’d reflect on the programme afterwards, so here it is.
Between October 2022 and March 2023 I ran a programme of 15 engagement activities which involved 219 people from ~182 organisations. The activities were mostly workshops (a mixture of online and in-person), with some 1-1 support delivered along the way. The workshops were broadly on three themes:
- Developing data strategies: laying the groundwork for a basic data strategy, which looks at using data to achieve strategic aims, and creating a strategy for governing and making the most of data. You can read more here.
- Storytelling with data: taking a human-centred design approach to using data in our stories. Resources can be found here.
- Fostering positive data cultures: developing the theoretical foundations of positive data cultures, and resources for establishing a positive data culture. I’ve written a blog about part of it here, and resources can be found on the resources tab.
The workshops went really well and I received some kind (and helpful!) feedback. Some of the clear learning points for me include:
- Provide a clear incentive: whilst many people will immediately see the benefit and appeal of the workshops, they will often need to communicate this to their line manager/colleagues and therefore making the aims and outcomes of the workshop clear and simple to communicate to others is important.
- Lay the groundwork: I began each workshop by making sure we all knew what we meant by data, and introduced some basic principles and discussed data formats and topics. This was useful for averting the ‘but what do we mean by data!?’ discussion.
- You can’t discuss data in isolation: comms and fundraising strategies, staff capacity, culture amongst senior leaders, relationships with funders, confidence with maths, interactions with service users, and long-term organisational strategies are all topics that frequently came up in workshops as being heavily linked to data use in one way or another. Whilst it’s tempting to shut these discussions down because you have content you want to cover, a 10 min detour to discuss a seemingly distant topic will prove useful for uncovering the live opportunities for data-informed change.
- Online and in-person sessions require very different formats: In person, people value time to learn from each other and get stuck into their own worksheets or exercises. Online, people generally want to hear from an ‘expert’ voice, followed by a short amount of time for peer-peer discussion and questions. Of course, this varies by group, but I generally found it useful to put the worksheets away for online sessions and have shorter bursts of group discussion.
- Practitioners value time together and space to think clearly: In general I received positive feedback about the content, but almost all workshops had plenty of people say that they valued the time and space to think about these topics, as they struggle to find space for it amidst their day-to-day work. Obviously this isn’t a new problem; this 1993 paper on the adoption of Volnet (an online database for use by VCS orgs) described key barriers to IT adoption as being a shortage of financial resources and time – not much has changed in 30 years!
I’m spending a lot of my paid work time supporting nonprofits with their data use. Outside of that, I’m reading and writing on this topic. These are the action points for me (and possibly others!) that emerged from this programme:
- Prioritise culture over literacy: we need to prioritise the development of positive data cultures above all else. This topic often gets conflated with data maturity and data literacy, which I think leads us to neglect the importance of culture. I’m fortunate to be able to work on this specifically in certain projects, but there’s plenty more to do. This quote from a participant about their overall data culture sticks with me:
“Unfortunately, I do not have the authority to make changes to how we work with data. However, when I attend these events, it gives me the opportunity to create some noise and stir things up a bit! Small steps! :)”
- We need more nonprofit specific models and theory: there’s been some great work which documents case studies of nonprofit data use, but this area feels undertheorized (both for academics and practitioners). Good theory helps us to make sense of a complex world and see where there are opportunities for change. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this with the Data Learning Loop, and I’ve got a few ongoing projects in this area, but we in particular need theory that:
1) helps us to explore how data is constructed (the data assemblage) and the implications (+ & -) for nonprofits
2) helps us to explore how data is (and can be) shared and carried between organisations and partnerships, whilst acknowledging real-world difficulties of governance, interoperability, value-clashes, etc.
- Consider how we can adapt funding models to support different aspects of nonprofit data work: there’s a whole blog to be written about this, but in short, consider how we can support organisations of different sizes and at different stages of their data journeys to get sustainable funding for data work. We know it’s a problem and I’m really keen to explore funding models and options – please get in touch if this is something that you’re working on!
Finally, I must thank the partner organisations that supported me in delivering this programme (UKCF, ACF, BVSC, and Superhighways), and University of Birmingham’s ESRC IAA fund for backing the project.
I’m continuing to run the above workshops in different forms, so please let me know if that would be of interest, or if you have any thoughts or reflections in general!