Foundation Communities: Making Sense of Data

Sierra Randall is a dedicated educator, researcher, and grant professional. Specializing in applied Sociology and community activism, she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Bard College in 2013. Sierra has worked with various social advocacy organizations, including SAFE, the Willa Cather Foundation, and Multicultural BRIDGE. She currently serves as the Grants and Contracts Administrator for Foundation Communities.

Someone very wise once said, “Data is like garbage…you better know what you’re going to do with it before you collect it.” Those are some of the truest words ever said.

My organization, Foundation Communities (FC), has been collecting data since its inception. It is something all nonprofits must do to maintain funding, and grow their services to reach as many people as possible in their community. As is the case with many organizations, however, it has been (and continues to be) a long, ongoing journey for us to discover and harness the awesome power and usefulness of data.

My Data Journey

I joined FC’s data journey four years ago when I picked up extra hours doing data entry for our afterschool program. To be honest, I found the work menial and unrewarding. Where was this data going and, more importantly, why? I finally had the opportunity to learn when I took on the position of Contracts and Data Specialist a couple years later. In this position, I learned how to create procedures and protocols around data collection and compile the information into reports for our funders. As my work progressed, many new ideas began to take shape.

After discovering our mutual interest in the data ecosystem of our organization, I teamed up with a colleague of mine who also worked regularly with data; we started asking each other big questions that had large implications for our organization. How can FC make our data systems more useful, efficient and manageable? How do we provide more training to our program staff? In what ways can data show the intersectional impact of our many programs? Most importantly, how can FC pursue a sustainable, data-driven learning culture within our organization?

Connecting with Austin’s Data-Driven Nonprofit Community

We later learned we certainly were not the only ones having these conversations throughout our organization and in the larger Austin community. Last year, my colleague and I had the opportunity to participate in two Good Measure-sponsored series, the Data Leaders Academy and Measuring What Matters. The resources provided to us proved to be invaluable. We were coached on how to have meaningful data conversations, build trust and connection amongst our staff, and advocate for capacity-building within our organization.

We took these tools back and began exploring our current culture of data using in-depth discussions with various program staff.  Many staff spoke passionately about their current use of data for program tools and service quality. Additionally, we learned about the many successes and challenges staff had with data and their desire to explore its usefulness further.

These collaborative data discussions have led to the formation of strategic, evidence-based proposals for more support and training. This advocacy has prompted the creation of a variety of new data-focused positions and increased data and technology training opportunities for program staff at all levels of the organization. The resources from Mission Capital and Good Measure gave us guidance on essential practices needed for our organization to continue its data journey, and we could not be more grateful.

Looking Ahead

We still have much work to do, and always will; that is the beauty of strategic, data-informed growth. However, the most important thing I have learned from this ongoing process of pursuing a data-driven learning culture is to engage staff at all levels in the conversation. Each person has a unique perspective on the use and importance of data to our organization and our mission. That collective insight is what will keep our work moving forward in a positive direction.

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