Using Data to Make Better Decisions

May 19, 2016

Rella Kaplowitz serves as Program Officer, Evaluation and Learning in the Schusterman Foundation's DC office. Below, she shares helpful tips for organizations of all sizes interested in taking their data collection and analysis to the next levelincluding five immediate steps they can take to get more out of the data they already have.

Big data. Data analytics. Data visualization. There are a lot of buzz words surrounding data that make it seem unattainable without a huge staff and inexhaustible resources. Don’t be fooled—using data to make better decisions is possible for any organization of any size, and the good news is that your organization is probably already data-driven, even if not formally.

Becoming a data-driven organization means using information to help you better understand and make decisions about your work. Any organization can be data-driven if you can (1) determine what information would help you achieve your goals, (2) collect the information and (3) gain insight from the information that supports making better decisions.

Many organizations assume that they need a large amount of numerical data and fancy analysis tools to make better decisions. This is simply not true. While quantitative data can help paint a more detailed picture, all data can support decision-making. It is not feasible—or even advisable—for organizations to base all of their decision-making on quantitative data.

However, any new data-driven decision requires a greater investment of time and resources in data collection and analysis. Therefore, it is important that an organizational staff collectively determines if the data being attained is actually worth this investment of time, staff resources and money. A data management system’s price tag may not be an obstacle for organizations with a large number of diverse constituents—but for others with smaller scopes, organized Excel files may work just fine.

Determining what information you are interested in collecting—and the information you already have at your disposal—is the first step towards making smart, data-driven decisions. Information comes in many forms:

Anecdotal data is information based on personal accounts, rather than research. These are the stories about the ways a stay at summer camp or a trip to Israel changed the course of someone’s life. These pieces of data do not represent the experiences of everyone who participated, but provide important context when demonstrating the type of impact an organization can have.

Several parents tell you that they are surprised at how quickly their children acclimated to middle school. You notice many of these students had the same homeroom teacher in 5th grade. You ask that teacher to share some of her classroom practices during a professional development day.

Qualitative data is any information you collect that is observed, rather than measured. Examples of qualitative data include eye color, religious affiliation, attitudes and behaviors. There is no inherent numerical value that can be attached to qualitative data, but it depicts the characteristics of a group in ways that anecdotal data cannot.

Several parents tell you that they are surprised how quickly their children acclimated to middle school. You notice many of these students had the same homeroom teacher in 5th grade. You ask current 6th – 8th grade parents if their children seemed prepared for middle school and why. Almost all parents who said 5th grade prepared their children well also said the teacher modeled a middle school style of teaching, including more and shorter classes, during the second half of the school year. You ask this teacher to share her modeling practice during a professional development day.

Quantitative data is information that can be measured and recorded numerically. Examples include height, weight, temperature and GPA. Quantitative data also includes qualitative variables for which a measurement scheme has been developed, like measuring attitudes about Israel on a 1-5 scale.

Several parents tell you that they are surprised how quickly their children acclimated to middle school. You notice many of these students had the same homeroom teacher in 5th grade. You go back through quarterly report cards and see that last year, students who had this teacher in 5th grade had better middle school grades than students who did not. You ask the teacher and she tells you about her process for modeling middle school-style classes for her students. You implement this modeling practice in all 5th grade classes, and also work with 8th grade teachers on developing a model for supporting the transition of students to high school.

Chances are you have data that fits into at least one of the categories above already at your fingertips. Here are five small steps you can take right now to make the most of the data you have:

  1. Centralize your data storage. Storing all of your data in one place, even if it’s in an Excel spreadsheet, is the first step toward making better decisions with data. Don’t jump to investing in a hefty database before assessing whether something simple will work for you.
  2. Make sure you are collecting the right data. Is the data you are collecting right now supporting your decisions? If not, go back to your strategy and your goals—ask yourself what information you need to collect to help you better understand your work and if you are making progress toward your goals, whether anecdotal, qualitative or quantitative. There is no shame in starting small and working your way up, or even deciding that anecdotal data is all you need.
  3. Invest in analytical capacity. Having even a limited amount of internal capacity to collect, explore and gain insight from data will help you make better decisions as an organization. It’s worth the investment, even if that investment is spending a week watching YouTube videos and creating some static dashboards in Excel. That’s how I got started with data!
  4. Whatever data you have, start using it now. Every organization has some data, even if it’s anecdotal. Start using it now, in whatever capacity you can, to inform your decisions. Use staff meetings to share what you are learning, schedule lunch-and-learns for shared learning. If you are a one-person shop, consider scheduling in-person or virtual shared learning meetings with peers at partner organizations.
  5. Expand your storytelling with data. Already collecting and analyzing your data? The right data visualization can make all the difference in telling a compelling story. There are many free data visualization resources (including this website) that will guide you through the selection process.

Above all, making an effort to outline clear goals, determine what data will help you achieve them and what investment it will take to implement your plans is paramount to creating a robust data strategy. And with better data in hand, you can maximize your interactions with your constituents, more effectively convey your message to the right audiences, improve organizational efficiency—and get one step closer to achieving your mission.

Rella Kaplowitz Profile Image

Director, US Jewish Grantmaking