May 24, 2024

the right stuff

a concert with thousands of people in the audience
photo caption: a concert in an arena. the stage is lit up in funky red shapes. an audience of thousands dances along to the music. can you imagine if every one of these people had to fill out a questionnaire at the door? think of all the data we could mine!

A lot of nonprofits collect more data than they know what to do with. We might have a cool idea for a survey question. Or a foundation that’s giving us money asks us to collect it. Sometimes an off-hand request from the ED sends the staff down a data collection spiral. The data we collect often outlasts the need for it, but it’s hard to turn off the tap once it starts running.

Data collected well can improve the services people get, justify an ask for money, and more. How do we know what’s good and what isn’t? Here are some lessons that I share with the folks I work with. These are some of the guideposts I would want if I was the person having my data collected.

share with me the ground rules

If you’re new to me, this is my first time to learn what is important to you. Capitalism has gotten us used to data-mining and transactional relationships. The feeling of exploitation still feels gross. You’re in a position of power over me. What does that look like for you? What are you going to take from me? What do I have to navigate to get what I need? Can I say no and still get served?

If you must collect data, do everything you can to help people feel at ease. Create more a welcoming atmosphere by getting all that out up front. Write out a script for people who work at the front desk to keep them from ad-libbing wrong information. Prepare to answer things like:

  • what questions are optional?
  • how are you using the data?
  • how are you saving my information?
  • who will have access to it?
  • how could my answers change my experience here?

tell me in a sentence why you’re asking

So you want to know my address before you’ll help me. Why? I use the grocery store example every time I talk about data collection. Not once has a cashier asked me for my street address. If you were at the store and they asked you, wouldn’t you be curious? Now imagine that same cashier asks you a dozen questions before you can even get through the door. Would you come back?

Before every question you ask someone, start with the answer to, “Why do you want to know?” Two things I’ll stress: simplicity and honesty. Here’s an example: “This next question helps us count how many people will use our services this year.”

Be able to explain why in a single sentence. It’s very difficult to be vague or hedging in one sentence. Giving a convoluted answer will start to lose people the longer the sentence is. If you don’t know why you’re asking, find an answer or drop the question.

don’t blame your funder

“We ask this question because it’s required by our funder,” is not a complete sentence. Why do they want to know? If you don’t know how your funder is using this data, you haven’t done your due diligence. If you ask your funder and they don’t know? Ask them to rethink the question. Be respectful but push back on collecting it until they can tell you why they want to know. If they can explain why, would they accept clients declining to answer? Try saying, “this could be a hardship for our clients to provide this information. Can we make it optional?” Ask questions on behalf of your client. “If they aren’t comfortable sharing their home address, how can we still serve them?” Funders are humans, just like us, just like the people we’re serving. They just have a different level of power in this situation. Take the time to educate people about why their questions may not be as innocent as they seem.

I know it can be hard to feel like you’re arguing with a funder. You might even do the mental math: “this money allows us to help thousands of people. We’ve only had three people complain about the data the funder asks for.” I don’t like that kind of calculus, but I don’t think it’s ever worth it.

take from me only what you need

When you’re writing your survey, think about what you’ll do with the data you collect. How soon will you get to it? I’ve worked with people who wanted to ask a specific question on a client survey. What did they need it for? They had a summer intern coming months (!) after the survey ended. Information gets stale fast. Imagine asking your friends what their favorite bar or restaurant was… in March 2020. Most of my favorites closed within a year. How useful would that data be, even a few months later?

Before you start collecting this data, determine who is going to be using it. Have them draw up a workplan for it. Who will analyze the data? When will you make decisions based on what you collect? If you can’t use the information immediately, wait to collect it.

treat me as your partner

Every time you ask me a question you’re expecting an answer. It might not feel like it, but my answer makes it a dialogue. Invite me to join you in this work as a partner instead of a subject. This is an opportunity for collaboration!

Find out from what’s important to ask from the people you serve. Make a plan to share back what you learned from me. Let me tell you what I think of your analysis. Better yet, invite participants to help you analyze the work. Don’t even bother making anyone do it for free. Are you working for free?

Give people something to react or respond to. Does your assessment agree with mine? Did I notice something that your analysis missed? Can I add context or reasoning behind the data you collected? Sometimes the nuance in the data can be so minor that people new to the issue can miss it altogether.

respect me by slowing down

When I was an employee at a nonprofit, I felt the constant pressure of doing things as fast as possible. There is a sense of urgency that’s common in organizations where white culture is the norm. I’m sure that’s familiar to all my readers! I rarely felt like I had the time to do the steps I’ve explained above. But when I slowed down I found my survey getting shorter, more direct, easier to understand. I know what it’s like to want to rush out the first draft as the final. If I’m that busy, how must the people coming to my site feel? Consider their needs throughout the data collection process.

All information about me is personal, but we must take even greater care with data that connects back to me. The Trump administration only had to threaten the legal residency of immigrants who used social services. The threat alone was enough to scare people away from essential food. What will happen when we all have to turn over our data to the next fascist administration? It doesn’t matter how secure your servers are. All the major data companies will share your information to anyone with a subpoena or money. Everyone thinks their data is super important. Is it worth a life? A livelihood? No piece of data is worth that.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]