Category Archives: outcomes

My ever expanding theory of change for nonprofit data and evaluation

Drowning in data, drafting a data checklist, and asking “WHY?”

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Now that TNB Labs is up and running, we’re receiving a lot of requests from nonprofit organizations who are perplexed about how to manage the data that they have, before they plunge any further into data analytics or think about acquiring a new data analysis tool.  This has given me a lot of opportunities to reflect on how difficult it can be for people whose expertise lies elsewhere to orient themselves to data governance.

Steve Pratt‘s blog article “Drowning in Data?” has been a huge inspiration.  In it, he explains the importance of data inventories, and offers to send the Root Cause template to anyone who requests it.  I highly recommend that you send an email to info@rootcause.org, and ask for a copy.

At the same time, as I went over Steve’s template, I had a nagging feeling that we needed something even more elementary.  Remembering my friend Bob Penna‘s exhortation of a few months before, about asking “who, when, where, what, how, and why,” I quickly drafted a data checklist that focused on those basic questions.  When I sent it to Bob, he very quickly returned it with some excellent enhancements; the most brilliant one was to start the checklist with the question “WHY?”  As he very sensibly pointed out, if you can’t come up with a good reason why you are collecting, analyzing, reporting, and archiving information, you might as well stop there.  In the absence of a persuasive answer to the question “why?” there’s no need to ask “who, when, where, what, and how;” in fact there’s no reason to collect it at all.

With that wisdom in mind, I have tweaked the draft of the data checklist, and herewith present it to you for feedback. This version is the result of a Penna/Finn collaboration:

You can view it by clicking on this link.

Before you take a look at it, I recommend reading “Drowning in Data?”  After you’ve perused the spreadsheet, I recommend reading Bob Penna’s book, “The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox.”

 

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Every nonprofit needs a theory of change for its technology. . .and for its evaluation process

if then

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life (thus far) thinking about the missions of nonprofit organizations, and about information/communication technologies for nonprofits.

In the past few years, it’s become fashionable to talk about the importance of a “theory of change” for nonprofits.  This is merely a way of underlining the importance of making an explicit statement about the causal relationship between what a nonprofit organization does and the impact that it has promised to deliver.  I applaud this!  It’s crucial to say, “if we take all of the following resources, and do all of the following actions, then we will get all of the following results.”  An organization that lacks the capacity to marshal those resources and take those actions needs to reconsider, because it is on track to fail. If its capacity is not aligned with its commitment, it should acquire the resources or change its commitment to results.  Of course, it some cases, it will merely need to revise its theory of change.  In any case, it will have to work backward from its mission, and understand how each component contributes to achieving it.

This kind of thinking has lead to a lot of conversations (and a lot of anxiety) in the nonprofit sector about performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, and impact assessment.

I’d love to have some of this conversation focus on the information/communication technologies that nonprofit organizations are using.  In other word, it’s time to be explicit about a theory of change that explains in detail how every component of the technology an organization uses contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver a specific kind of social, cultural, or environmental impact.

Likewise, I’d love to have the conversation address the ways in which the efforts of a nonprofit organization’s performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, or impact assessment team contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver the kind of impact that it promised its stakeholders.

 

 

TNB Labs has launched, and its first priority is data services for nonprofits!

tnb labs logo july 2016

 

Greg Palmer and I are very pleased to announce the launch of TNB Labs, a company dedicated to providing nonprofit organizations with high quality data services and program management.  TNB Labs works with organizations to audit and assess data management methodology, develop and implement data standards, and provide structural oversight through data governance to organizations of all sizes.

Through our partnership with Tech Networks of Boston, we have had a unique opportunity to listen to hundreds of stakeholders at TNB’s Roundtables uncover a need to elevate the role of data in nonprofit organizations.  TNB Labs is focused on improving the capacity of nonprofit organizations at every stage of the outcome management process.

The immediate priorities of TNB Labs are:

1) Providing Master Data Management (MDM) services to nonprofit organizations in support of their missions, focusing on data governance, data quality, data modeling, data visualizations, and program evaluation.

2) Providing workforce program management for Desktop Support Technicians (DST), Data Support Analysts (DSA), and Data Analytics/Data Evaluation entry level professionals.

3) Managing the TNB Roundtable series, which is now jointly owned by Tech Networks of Boston and TNB Labs.

TNB Labs is led by Greg Palmer (chief executive officer), and Deborah Elizabeth Finn (chief strategic officer).  The other co-founders are Bob Master (former CEO of Commonwealth Care Alliance) and Susan Labandibar (founder of Tech Networks of Boston).

TNB Labs is here to solve your problems.  Please contact us with any questions and comments you have about TNB Labs, or to learn more about data management or program management services that might be helpful to your organization.

Best regards from Deborah and Greg

Greg Palmer
gpalmer@tnblabs.org
508.861.4535

Deborah Elizabeth Finn
definn@tnblabs.org
617.504.8188

TNB Labs, LLC
PO Box 2073
Framingham, MA 01703
www.tnblabs.org

 

 

It’s not just a half-day outcomes management training for nonprofit executives – it’s an occasion for rejoicing!

snoopy happy dance

For more than two years, I have been worrying aloud about the lack of training for nonprofit professionals who want to lead their organizations in implementing outcomes management and data visualization.  Today I’m rejoicing, because Tech Networks of Boston opened registration for a free (and sales-pitch-free) half-day outcomes management training for nonprofit executives.

It’s happening in April because some wonderful allies have stepped up – such as TNB’s co-hosts, the Mel King Institute and the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts, and the wonderful Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk of Community TechKnowledge, who will serve as our trainer.

This isn’t the full series of three day-long trainings on outcomes management and outcomes data visualization that I had originally envisioned, and that I still hope we can organize.  If we are able to do that, the other trainers will be the equally wonderful Beth Kanter and Georges Grinstein.  Right now, I’m looking at plans for Kathryn’s half-day outcomes management training as a miracle in itself, but also as the thin edge of the wedge.  (If you prefer more up to date jargon, you can call it a “proof of concept.”)

Of course, my thinking has become even more grandiose since I originally came up with the idea of a three-day outcomes/data viz training series.  Now I’m thinking in terms of a “Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology,” in which the first initiative would be a degree program in nonprofit data analysis.

Let’s take this training opportunity, which will be brief in comparison to the more elaborate programs that I’ve envisioned, and build on it!

 

 

How much fun is the Nonprofit Technology Conference? This much fun. (Plus some thoughts about shifting from tactical to strategic support of nonprofit organizations.)

Deborah is delighted by the artist's rendition of a concept of Tech Networks of Boston's. The photo was taken at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference .

Photo by Peggy Duvette of Netsuite.Org.

The good folks of Netsuite.Org had a great idea for their exhibit area at the Nonprofit Technology Conference this year.  They asked attendees to describe their technology visions in three words.  I chose “shared” “data,” and “outcomes.” and an artist quickly drew up a visual to express this.  (Unfortunately, I did not note down her name; I hope I can find it in order to give her proper credit for her work.)  The photo shown above was taken by Peggy Duvette, and as you can see, I was delighted to see this concept, which is part of Tech Networks of Boston’s strategic thinking, become part of the patchwork quilt of ideas that were being expressed.

Here’s a close-up of the TNB concept:

I (Deborah) took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

I took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

At TNB, we are thinking more and more about collaborative technology management – not just in terms of how we work with our nonprofit clients, but also about how clusters of NTAPs and nonprofits can work together toward a shared long term goal.   We have great relationships (and in many cases, shared nonprofit clients) with some great local nonprofit technology assistance providers, such as Annkissam* and 501Partners.  The three NTAPs are already collaborating on a series of sales-pitch-free evenings in which local nonprofit professionals are offered pro bono tech consultations.

However, the potential exists to do so much more, especially considering how many clients we share.

Wouldn’t it be great if the three NTAPs could offer their shared clients the following:

1) Seamless integration of TNB, AK, and 501P’s services.

2) Shared best practices for clusters of nonprofits with similar programs, operations, or missions.

3) Coordinated outcomes measurement and management for nonprofits that have overlapping constituencies.

The joy of #15NTC is in realizing that although we are just three NTAPs in one region, we are part of a wider movement.  In fact, if you were to look at the entire collection of artist’s renderings that were done at the Netsuite.Org exhibit area, you’d see that many nonprofit organizations are on the cusp of dreaming this dream.  Most of in the nonprofit sector understand that for lasting positive change in the world, one program at a single nonprofit organization is not enough.  The future is in sharing and coordinating our work.  What if nonprofit technology assistance providers started with that challenge, rather than the challenge of keeping a network server from crashing?  The emphasis would shift from the tactical support of nonprofits to the strategic support of their missions.  And by “missions,” I don’t mean vague statements; I mean specific (and even quantifiable) positive changes that nonprofit profits have committed themselves to delivering to their stakeholders.

Because mission achievement is why we all get up in the morning to do our jobs.

And because building a nonprofit technology movement that supports mission achievement is the best possible reason for participating in the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

 

* I also serve Annkissam directly as a consultant.

 

 

 

“Accidental Evaluator” is the new “Accidental Techie.” I’m just saying.

laura beals

Laura Beals, who is director of evaluation at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Boston, published a great article on the NTEN blog earlier this month, called “Are You an ‘Accidental Evaluator?’ “

I think that this is a great question to ask, because many nonprofit professionals currently managing program evaluation within small nonprofits are indeed coming to the task with less preparation than they would like.  Perhaps they are program directors, or grant writers, or chief financial officers, or database administrators.  And now the pressure is on them to come up with numbers that show that their organizations are actually creating the positive change in the world that the organization has promised to deliver.

In fact, many of today’s accidental evaluators at nonprofits are in the same position that accidental techies were ten or fifteen years ago.

I respectfully disagree with those of my esteemed colleagues who want to help nonprofit professionals by reassuring them that they don’t have to meet the standards of academic peer reviewed journals when they use data to tell their stories.  While it’s true that the level of rigor required for nonprofit programmatic evaluation is much less strict, it’s not enough to point this out and encourage nonprofit professionals to relax.  Those nonprofit professionals are running organizations with a special legal status that make them answerable to the public and responsible for contributing to the common good.  This is a serious ethical obligation.

From my point of view, those of us who understand the importance of evaluation in the nonprofit sector should be working to deliver appropriate forms of professional development to “accidental evaluators,” just as NTEN has labored mightily to deliver professional development to “accidental techies.”

In fact, NTEN itself is in a very good position to assist “accidental evaluators,” because many technology topics are intimately tied up with nonprofit evaluation, such as database development, data integration, and data visualization. Indeed, if you look at some the companion articles on the NTEN blog, you’ll see that this effort is underway:

I’m pleased to say that here in Boston we’re actively addressing this.  For example, Laura and her wonderful JF&CS colleague Noah Schectman recently led a meeting of local nonprofit professionals who are seeking to improve their skills in bridging between evaluation and technology.  A pivotal moment at this session came when the executive director of a tiny nonprofit raised her hand and asked Noah, “Will you be my best friend?”  Noah’s face lit up, and he told her that he would.  That’s the kind of reassurance that we should be offering nonprofit professionals who feel overwhelmed; we should be telling them that support and training are on the way.

 

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