Data is Really About People

August 6, 2018–In 1993, a fledging network of family resource centers emerged out of sheer will and passion to serve our communities where needs persisted and services lagged. The formal association, Family Resource Center Association was established a few years later in 1998.  Since then, our network has increasingly used a “data-informed” approach to strengthen services through disciplined practice and decision making.

So here’s the thing.  Data in nonprofits is really about people; about our compulsive drive to reveal the truth about our impact; about how we work with people to implement change.

Data-informed practice is people-informed practice.

Several years ago, our network started asking: How do we define our impact? We employed simple data tools to hone in on how many people our network touched with services, directly or indirectly, and into which Colorado communities we reached. We asked questions such as: How do we expand into underserved areas of the state? How can we serve more people in a deeper way?  We increased our focus on offering a variety of evidenced-based services in more communities.

As we moved further into data-informed territory, the complexity of tools evolved. Since 2009 our network has used a relational database, Efforts to Outcomes (ETO), to collect participant-level data across the state. (Depending on who you ask, “ETO” might as well be a four-letter word. No one said data collection is easy!) Having a common database helps tell the story of communities across the state that need and value our services.

Every new revelation begs new questions, and we continued to implement more rigorous data practices. Now family development workers use a tool created by social science researchers called the Colorado Family Support Assessment 2.0. It takes into account 14 factors, including: employment and income, housing and food security, physical and mental health, and more. Is it perfect?  Of course not.  Will it look different five years from now? Maybe. (Gasp!) Does it encourage us to look at what we are doing well, and what we could do better?  Absolutely.

Once we had a tool to measure “self-reliance,” the conversation shifted. How would we ensure our work with families helps them achieve progress in areas that are important to them? Family development workers now earn a certification in a technique pioneered by counselors called “Motivational Interviewing.” It turns out that helping people make change in their life requires a similar approach whether it involves giving up smoking or deciding to develop and adhere to a personal budget.

We’ve been offering this approach long enough that we have data to demonstrate that our family development model works. We know that people across the state come to our centers with a vulnerability in one or more of the 14 areas we assess.  They also come with strengths and dreams.

Our data, as analyzed by social science researchers that we call “evaluators,” shows that people improve to a more stable place thanks to our strengths-based approach. Hence, here at Mountain Resource Center in Conifer, Colorado, which is also a Mile High United Way Center for Family Opportunity site, we can say that “an external evaluator found that family development participants experienced statistically significant growth in economic self-sufficiency domains.”

We owe it to ourselves, our families, and our supporters to understand the reach and depth of our services. For this, data-informed practice has been, and will continue to be, transformative.  At the same time, data-informed practice places additional requirements on our staff whose case loads are full. It challenges our leaders to develop methods for analyzing data even though agencies are stretched thin. We appreciate that our supporters understand the demands of this high-quality, intensive, people-focused approach.

And remember: data isn’t just about numbers. Anecdotes are another type of data we collect. As one of our families recently told us: For most of us, this is enough to keep us striving, out of sheer will and passion, to better understand and meet our community’s needs.

For more information about Mountain Resource Center or the Family Resource Center closest to you, visit our Centers Page.

By Tracy Atlas (Mountain Resource Center)

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