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5 nonprofit best practices for equity in data collection

September 10, 2020
A young woman smiles while typing on her laptop in a coffee shop, demonstrating the importance of equity in data collection.

In recent years, the U.S. has seen record numbers of people seeking social services. Community need is outpacing capacity to deliver services in many states, and people of color are disproportionately impacted. It’s now more important than ever to establish equitable practices in the social services sector to meet the needs of all those seeking help.

We recently brought together three nonprofit organizations serving the Los Angeles community and special guest Steve Ballmer, co-founder of Ballmer Group Philanthropy, to discuss the importance of collecting equitable data-driven insights and working together to respond to community needs and transform lives. 

This conversation revealed five tangible practices that nonprofits and funders can implement to collect more equitable data and elevate community collaboration. We’ll revisit their examples so you can begin promoting equity in data collection and beyond. 

1. Use data as a form of listening

Soon after COVID-19 shut down Los Angeles, our panelist A Place Called Home (APCH) surveyed the families they serve to see how the onset of the pandemic was affecting them and where APCH could help. 

After listening to the feedback they received and identifying areas of need, here are the actions APCH took:

  • They implemented new programs, including a Family Resource Depot to receive and distribute groceries and household necessities. They also started a direct delivery program that included books and art supplies. 
  • They launched a new APCH Programs Hub to provide their members with daily access to academic tutoring, mental health counseling, the arts, athletics, and pathways to college and good jobs.

In this example, APCH used equitable data collection as a form of listening to ask their community members what they needed directly. By asking for direct feedback through surveys and one-on-one conversations, you can quickly pivot programs to address your community’s changing needs.

2. Ask the right questions

To implement equitable, community-driven data and ethical evaluation practices, it helps to take a step back, think outside the box, and identify and question assumptions. Make sure you are asking your program participants the right questions in an inclusive, relevant way.

For example, Fulfillment Fund found that gender questions on their surveys were not being answered. After taking a step back to question and identify the reason this was happening, Fulfillment Fund decided to include a nonbinary category. This resulted in far higher response rates to gender questions, with 10% of respondents checking the nonbinary box. 

Fulfillment Fund’s initial question about gender options led them to reevaluate more areas of their surveys that may not be inclusive. Additional conversations with alumni revealed that categorizing people as “first generation” or “low income” can be disempowering. These questions changed the way the organization approaches data collection and led to more equitable, inclusive practices. 

3. Empower program participants

Another panelist, Da Vinci RISE High School, shared an example of an equitable practice they developed to empower their program participants. 

By giving Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) exams during student intake, Da Vinci RISE High School provides students with new language and perspectives that help them to set boundaries and ask for what they need. These exams empower students to lead their own Individualized Education Program meetings and own their data, which contributes to a safe environment for sharing, normalizes trauma, and minimizes triggers.

In this instance, we can see how giving program participants access to their information and ownership of their progress benefits everyone by:

  • Promoting self-agency.
  • Empowering students to advocate for themselves.
  • Fostering goal setting.
  • Encouraging family engagement.

Think about the areas of your own programs or services where you can allow participants to take charge of their own data. Then, work towards creating safe, equitable data practices throughout your entire organization. 

4. Prioritize information technology

Our panelists and Ballmer agree that lasting operational infrastructures that support information technology are game changing in the social sector, particularly when it comes to community impact. No one organization can solve community programs—we all need to work together. To partner at the community level, organizations need to have the technology to be able to contribute and keep up.

To make this a reality, social good organizations and funders must both prioritize information technology. Social good organizations need to build the cost for technology into their budget structures, and funders need to invest in technology and staff in addition to programs.

5. Push for data that measures outcomes

Rather than focusing on outputs like how many people are served, focus efforts on outcomes such as clear paths to upward mobility. Digital connection doesn’t substitute for human connection, but digital connections with program participants make it easier for them to express how they feel—and that results in being able to collect outcomes data.  

Equitable, community-focused outcomes data is beneficial for your organization in two main ways: 

  • Donors see the value in using data. Donors can use the advanced analytics that are now available to ask what can be done better to help program participants and improve program efficacy.
  • Data can help you push back on donors. Share why the data you collect is important for measuring outcomes and making grant reporting more integrated. 

Collecting this data and sharing it with donors results in less time spent repackaging information and more time spent transforming lives.

The bottom line about equity in data collection

The truth of the matter is that having access to technology can improve outcomes, whether you’re trying to make a profit or help change families’ lives. - Steve Ballmer, Ballmer Group

By prioritizing equity at every stage of the data collection process, nonprofits can improve the quality of their research, advance evidence-based solutions to complex social issues, and empower marginalized communities to advocate for change.

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