Broad Solutions for Nonprofits

Viva Krasinski, Grant Writing & Consulting


data collection

Taking a Broad Approach

There is no holier grail for a nonprofit than unrestricted funds (clouds part, angels sing). Unfortunately, holy grails are notoriously hard to find, especially if you’re looking for them in the grant world. So, in lieu of that holy grail is there something a little less holy, maybe just this side of divine, which is easier to acquire? Not quite unrestricted, but less restricted? The answer is yes, but you have to be willing to think outside the box or at least unpack that box a little and repackage it.

Let me take you back in time. A first class postage stamp was slightly cheaper than it is today and the price of gas was… Oh, about the same as it is now, actually. YouTube had just launched, providing us with a whole new set of cave walls on which to watch shadows flicker.  I, a fresh-faced and green-horned grant writer, faced the daunting task of writing proposals for a slew of programs each of which was almost identical but the data and the outcomes were all just a little different. The organization had started a decade or so before, providing arts programming at a local public school. Soon they expanded to two schools, then three, and so on. At this point, we were working with over a dozen individual schools as well as two small school districts. Each expansion was funded discretely, meaning that each was treated, at least by the funders and fundraisers, as a separate program.

This wasn’t a bad strategy for expansion. There were some definite pluses. The organization was able to expand incrementally and funders felt very connected to the schools they funded and to the community served.

But, there were also quite a few minuses. Big ones.  If the total cost for a school’s program was $25,000 a year, we were leaving money on the table with funders who could be awarding twice that. If a school’s demographics changed due to gentrification or an increased reliance on bussing in students from other neighborhoods, it could jeopardize grants which targeted a higher percentage of low-income students or students from a specific geographic area. Not to mention the fact that we were creating fifteen different grant templates and managing fifteen separate data sets in multiple formats — don’t even get me started on the accounting nightmare — for what was, essentially, one program. The bookkeeper and I were both tearing our hair out. Something had to be done.

I find the best ideas happen on walks and the best way to flesh them out is over coffee or tea or other beverages with smart, creative colleagues. After many walks to the local coffee shop, we designed an overarching framework of goals and outcomes to combine these into a single visual and performing arts education program. This process helped us to create a consistent set of demographic data to collect and track from all sites and disciplines. While our goal was to be able to go after larger grants with fewer restrictions, we also found that having universal data sets made it much easier to unpack and repackage information for those funders we would continue to solicit for specific school sites or arts disciplines. Standardization allowed us to be a lot more flexible in how we targeted funders and crafted our solicitations.

Step back and take a look at your programs. Are there ways you can repackage multiple programs as components of a larger single program or into just a few programs? Perhaps you have programs with similar outcomes which target different clients or communities. You might have programs that serve the same clients at different stages of their lives, educations, transitions, or recoveries which could be viewed as sequential components of a larger program. As you do this, you may find ways that you can streamline your data collection, tracking and analysis. You may even discover new angles for framing your work. It’s amazing what you can discover when you start unpacking your programs.

Data Collection Can Be Fun and Simple. No, Really.

I sit on the board of an arts organization and, this past weekend, I had the pleasure of working with a couple of colleagues to collect data at our annual music and arts festival… Wait! Did I just use the word pleasure in reference to data collection?  Isn’t data collection something we do because funders make us? Isn’t it complicated and time consuming and boring?  No! It can be fun and simple.  It does take a little time, but if you do it right, not nearly as much as you think.  Anyway, time flies when you’re having fun!

In the festival’s 13 year history, this was the first time any data, other than observational, was collected.  Everyone agreed that information needed to be gathered, but the very idea seemed too daunting to even think about.  Enter Mary Milelzcik, Emily Wiseman and I.  Let me say here how lucky I am to have such great colleagues in Mary and Emily.  Smart and creative don’t even begin to do them justice!   Talk about a power trio!

We knew it was going to be tough to get attendees to stop having fun for a moment in order to fill out a survey.  So, we had to make the survey fun and simple.

The first thing we did was figure out what information we needed to gather.  We looked at the questions our funders were asking, which was mostly demographic, and thought about what information would be most useful to the organization as we plan next year’s festival.  We settled on five questions: age; race/ethnicity; neighborhood of residence; mode of transportation to the event; and past attendance.

With the simple out of the way, we started working on the fun.  As we brainstormed about the process, we figured that our biggest challenge would be getting attendees to come to us rather than having to go out and coax them in.  We decided that the best way to do that would be to make it look like something fun and interesting was going on at our booth.  The best way to do that?  Make it actually fun and interesting!

First, we blew up a map of Los Angeles County and gave people pins to tell us where they live.  You wouldn’t believe how much excitement this generated.  We heard attendees squeal with glee that they were the first to push their pin into a neighborhood or that there were so many of their neighbors there that day.

Data collection @ 2015 TarfestFor the remaining four questions, we constructed and painted a six-foot tall, four-sided obelisk (read: giant cardboard box).  Each side had a question with four to five answers listed below in a clearly defined column or row.   Attendees were given sheets of brightly colored stickers with which to identify their answers by sticking them in the appropriate column or row.

Our final consideration was location.  The survey booth was situated right between the main entrance to the festival and the entrance to the bar.   We could not have asked for better placement!  We were the first thing everyone saw on their way in to the festival and those wanting to get into the bar, lined up right next to our booth.

The survey was a big hit!  Not only did attendees gravitate toward the booth and complete the survey, they talked about the trends they were seeing in real time.  We overheard discussions of the pin patterns on the map and of the range of ages represented.  Respondents also gave us feedback that will help us refine our survey for next year.   A couple of dozen attendees took photos of the surveys.  One, who runs a program at a botanical garden, told us he was going to steal our idea to find out more about his program participants.

The entire survey process from brainstorming to conception to implementation to final analysis took the three of us less than a week.  At the end of the day, out of about 4000 festival attendees, over 400 volunteered to participate in the survey.  That’s a 10% voluntary response rate without offering any incentive!

The moral of the story?  When it comes to data collection, sometimes you need to think outside of the box!

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