Enhancing Data Skills for Social Good

The social sector has within it an enormous number of passionate committed people, who everyday put their skills, energy and the limited resources available to them, to work, to enable positive changes for individuals, whānau, communities and the causes they care so much about.

And within this group of social sector workers is one particularly courageous bunch of people – those who have put their hand up at some point to take on the role of leadership in their organisation. It’s a tough gig – the demands are often immense, resources scarce and expectations of making a difference in the community through the work of your organisation, high.

As a new manager of a social service agency,  one of the first things I had to get my head around moving in to the role, was the endless reporting requirements we had – reporting (weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually) to three different government agencies with whom we had service agreements, monthly reporting to a board and then annual reporting required under the Charities Act.  And for each of these I was reporting on different things – our numbers, some narrative – in a different way for each stakeholder.

And like many new managers in the social sector, I didn’t come to the role with a management degree or a numbers background – I was a practitioner, who had gotten into the work because I wanted to make a difference, to work with people, to feel like the work I did was meaningful (for me) and hopefully to the people and communities I was working alongside.

So, I stumbled around for a little while, drew on the skills I did have, looked at what my predecessor had previously done and tried to work it out for myself. One of the scary things was however, that things had moved on since I did my formal training and the skill set I was bringing to the new role, didn’t fully match the new requirements of me.

One of the things I did do early on, was to seek out some basic training to help me to make sense of the data we were collecting so I could have faith in the numbers we were regularly sending through to our funders.  As a manager, you have got to get that stuff right, because your agency reputation relies on reporting reliable, accurate numbers about how your agency has delivered.

Reporting was one part of the equation. But I have always also been drawn to making sense of things and thinking about the big picture. And in many ways the data I reported on, didn’t answer any of the meaningful big questions I had. I needed to do more with all the data we were collecting from clients that our team was routinely entering into our database – to answer questions about our impact, the gaps, whether the reality of what we were doing was truly reflecting our vision and meeting the needs of our community.

So, I went off and found a basic Excel course (run out of the Katikati Community Centre), that enabled me to brush up on my skills that had for the most part been self-taught. Through this short course, taught over five sessions, I was gently guided through the process of how to clean, filter and sort our data and how to use basic pivot tables to analyse and organise the information we held about the people we were working with and the services we were providing.  The course gave me invaluable new skills to start creating insights from our data and it wasn’t even that hard (despite my initial fears).

During October at SociaLink we have been running that same Excel course for managers and administrators – anyone in local organisations who has to analyse and report on data.  And my hope in supporting the sector to build their skills to work with data, is that as a sector we will get stronger at creating evidence-informed insights about what we are doing well, what we could do better and the opportunities in front of us.

This first course is a start. But here at the CIL we are keen to find out what other kinds of support we can offer.  We ask that you complete our short survey about data insight skills (it will only take 3 minutes) to let us know about the sorts of programmes, courses and one-to-one support CIL could make available.   Click up the link here to participate:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/B9X2WJM

Thanks in advance for your participation. The CIL is here to support your organisation to make better sense of data you hold or access.  Get in touch and we can talk about how we can do just that.

Community Insights No. 1

17 August 2020

Most days since 23 March, when we first went into lockdown following a growing number of cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, I’ve tuned in at 1pm like most New Zealanders wondering “What do the numbers look like today?  Are there more people with the virus? Are the new cases coming from community transmission or at the border? Have more people succumbed to this disease? What are the transmission numbers in my community?  Who is being affected now and what was the route of transmission? How are we doing in New Zealand compared to the rest of the world?”

Like never before numbers matter – the data impacts us all. And knowing not just the numbers but the story behind the data provides us with a greater sense of insight and as much certainty as we can have in these uncertain times.  We find out about what the risks are to us personally, our community, the people we love. We understand more about the spread of this disease, how it differentially impacts different groups – our elders, those who already have vulnerable health, the businesses and sectors most reliant on New Zealand having open borders and open doors to maintain profits and employment. Now more than ever, we need good reliable information that joins the dots and helps us make sense of the situation we find ourselves in here in New Zealand, and also across the planet.

These ponderings about numbers and how they can enhance our understanding and inform what we do is just as relevant to our work in the social sector. As community groups we traditionally have seen ourselves as primarily about people, and the causes or issues our groups have been set up to ameliorate – whether it’s family violence, food poverty, homelessness, lack of opportunities for our young people, our concern for the environment, the need for appropriate services for people diagnosed with a particular health condition or disability … or any one of the diverse and far-reaching issues we are working to improve.   But numbers and data can be incredibly powerful when used to help make visible some of the things that previously have not been evident.  Good data can support our intuition about the need for services or gaps in what’s available. Data can prove what we’re doing well, where we could make improvements and it can shine a light on different groups that we are not serving as well as we think.

Numbers do matter. Those of us who work in the social sector are renowned for our skills in working with people, but may be a bit hesitant or even wary of numbers. But we don’t need to be.  Here at the Community Insights Lab (CIL) we have the skills and resources to support your organisation to help get a grip on what your numbers can tell you.  Come talk to us – our job at the CIL is to support you to see how the information you hold can be better harnessed to provide insight, and help join the dots to find ways to do even more in our communities to improve outcomes for the people we work with.