Break Down Your Data Barriers

In the helping professions, few words elicit as strong and varied a reaction as “data.”

Having strong outcome data to support your organization’s claims is essential, and there is immense value in using high quality information to guide your decision-making. But let’s be honest: There’s another perspective on the data revolution that is more focused on the drawbacks of “big data” than the benefits.

In fact, many of our colleagues may not be inclined toward data or think it’s very useful at all. Their experience with data may primarily be one of frustration or indifference, based on their experience tracking, reporting, and being evaluated on what appear to be arbitrary metrics by an outside body with little direct experience or understanding of their day-to-day work.

Both positions own a piece of the truth. Data on its own has no inherent value. A collection of numbers, regardless of how enlightening the information contained within it might be, means nothing unless the right person interacts with that data. Only at that point does the data become a valuable resource that can be used to make more informed and effective decisions.

This reality highlights the importance of the tools you use to analyze, present and share your data. Leaders and staff at all levels will only use it if the benefits of engaging with their data outweigh the effort and time it takes them to access and consume it.

We must be practical and realistic in considering how people access and experience data. Even sending a spreadsheet as an email attachment (expecting the recipient to open the file and look at the contents) is an unnecessary barrier. As stewards of data and information, we have a responsibility to meet people where they are and present high-quality analyses in ways that align with their existing habits and/or workflow.

No single approach is perfect, but interactive, web-based reports and dashboards address many of the obstacles that were, until recently, very difficult to overcome for nonprofit and helping organizations. They are easily accessible from any connected device, offer colorful, engaging visual representations of data, and are flexible and responsive to user input.

But historically, nonprofits and other organizations have struggled to take advantage of these tools due to the high cost of development and implementation, and the high degree of technical capacity required to do so.

Fortunately, we find ourselves in the midst of a new era of technology, one in which it’s entirely feasible for someone with no technical background to create engaging, interactive content and share it online with others in their organization. These new “self-service business intelligence” (BI) tools produce results on par with expensive enterprise-level platforms, and they are vastly cheaper (or free) and much easier to learn and use.

In fact, you may already have access to these tools and not be aware of it. Microsoft Excel (2010 and newer) includes powerful add-ins called PowerPivot and PowerQuery that make it possible to automate extensive data-cleaning and prepare analyses that traditionally take hours to complete manually. These tools use a modified (much more powerful and flexible) version of standard Excel formulas, so they are easy to learn for Excel users.

Power BI is a new BI platform that is part of Microsoft’s Office 365 package. It’s free to download and use, but you must have an Office 365 subscription to share content online with others privately. There are a number of other self-service BI tools, including Tableau and Qlik. The bottom line is that these tools are finally offering nonprofits a chance to make use of enterprise-level data tools for a fraction of the investment that would have been required just ten years ago. These tools lend themselves to incremental implementation, meaning that you can have a single team member experiment with applying these new approaches to an existing project and evaluate the results without any significant up-front investment.

Seneca Family of Agencies, a large social service provider in California and Washington, revolutionized its data systems with this very approach. In supporting a couple staff to develop skills in Power BI and Excel, we were able to automate the agency’s standard analyses, develop more nuanced calculations, and simultaneously make these analyses more flexible and globally accessible throughout the organization.

Regardless of the resources at your disposal, I encourage you to look into the benefits that these tools could bring to your organization. It has never been easier or more affordable to create systems that facilitate effective data use and informed decision-making to help fulfill your organization’s mission.


Jesh Harbaugh is the assistant director of business intelligence at Seneca Family of Agencies (www.senecafoa.org), which helps youth and families in California and Washington overcome life’s most difficult challenges. He can be reached at jesh_harbaugh@senecacenter.org.

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