Developing a Data Culture - the IT Perspective

Nonprofit organizations do critical work, but too often, data and evaluation can be regarded to “show what we are doing works.”  This “proof of concept” approach misses the real power of data, which is to continually and objectively learn from the people we serve and to utilize these insights to achieve social impact. 

I came to LifeWorks three years ago from the oil and gas industry. The organization had a well-defined problem it was trying to solve (barriers to self-sufficiency for highly vulnerable transition age youth); a clear set of data they would track; and even professional research staff. I was brought on board to develop IT solutions to support their goal of establishing a culture of data and learning. 

Before LifeWorks embarked on their data journey, the organization struggled to obtain the granular data needed to continually plan and improve services. Most often, service providers have access to population-level data, like the percentage of youth in foster care who graduate from college. This helps uncover challenges to address but provides little insight into how to develop a solution. As a result, organizations implement interventions guided by intuition and experience, not data. Any organization that has received funding for a “passion project” can relate to this. 

Let’s be honest. In nonprofit culture, technology solutions - like client databases - often represent everything that people who go into this work are trying to avoid in their careers – highly complex tools that never seem to work and a disproportionate amount of time spent with numbers, not people. The most virulent frustration at LifeWorks, however, was that staff would input tremendous amounts of data and have no idea if or how it was used for anything. During my first year, I frequently heard comments like “I wouldn’t mind doing all this data entry, if I knew how it could help my clients.” 

Empowering people closest to the mission of the organization with the data they need to serve their clients became the most important problem for our organization to solve. If we could connect data to the LifeWorks mission, and support direct service work with the right tools, then we could spark innovation, continual improvement, and establish a true culture of data.  

The problem had two dimensions. The first was to make it as easy as possible to both enter data and extract it in meaningful ways, and the second was to model work flows.  To accomplish these goals, the systems we were designing would have to model our program’s current work reality and achieve our client and research goals. Over a two-month timeframe, the design team spent more than 250 hours designing a Case Management product. 

With the design in hand, we engaged with our closest technology partner, Dell, for platform ideas to host our software. Taking into consideration that we were already invested in Microsoft’s O365 E5 product, they suggested that we look at D365.  After an analysis of competing software products, we went forward with D365 because of its highly programmable platform and its interoperability with our existing Microsoft products. 

AKA Enterprise Solutions came on board at this point. They are leaders in building D365 systems in the non-profit sector and at that time were delivering a D365 product for a client in the health sector.   

Fast-forward two years, and this team delivered on the promise of a Case Management product that supports LifeWorks staff in helping clients successfully navigate to self-sufficiency. It has also framed an evaluation and research agenda that feeds continual performance improvement across the organization. 

LifeWorks recently celebrated the premiere of “Failing Forward: On the Road to Social Impact” a documentary about how our own curiosity about relevant internal data led to a complete program overhaul, supported by our board members, funders and clients. In the movie, our biggest supporters talk about what happens when you listen to the bad data and develop the courage to pivot. 

In the coming months, Failing Forward will be screened across the country for groups interested in learning how nonprofit staff can better examine data to improve results. 

The IT journey to social impact is not for the faint of heart. It takes disciplined alignment of organizational vision, staff buy-in, and the right partners and platforms. In future blogs, I’ll discuss different elements of LifeWorks road, including a more detailed look at the D365 Case Management design, development of an O365 Roadmap, real time reporting with D365 Mobile Apps and Power BI, and automation in D365 with Flows.  

In the meantime, check out the results of these efforts on LifeWorks research and evaluation page and our work with AKA in this video