Bringing Heart to Data: How to Measure the Unmeasurable

Bringing Heart to Data: How to Measure the Unmeasurable

How can we connect team or project activities to larger organizational goals? And how can we be sure our actions are having a measurable effect on ourselves, our partners and the world? In this blog, we share aspects of our performance measurement process so that readers can understand how we answer these questions and connect our day-to-day work to our theory of change.

Data—quantitative or qualitative—helps answer the question, “Are we having our intended impact?” Data is also a tool for holding ourselves accountable to our mission and vision, and it allows us to make informed adjustments to our approach along the way.

To determine what information matters to us as data, we work backwards from “ends” (desired results) to “means” (strategies and programs)—a practice drawn from the Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework. With the guidance of Erika Bernabei of Equity & Results LLC, we have married the RBA framework with anti-racist principles. All of our intended results, performance management processes, and strategies are rooted in how racism—be it structural, institutional or interpersonal—as well as power and privilege shape our world and our own efforts.

These activities are part of an ongoing learning journey for us, and we still have more questions than answers, but here are a few elements of our process that may be useful:

Develop team- or project-specific performance measures, rooted in the Theory of Change

If we’re going to achieve long-term systems change, it’s important that each of us be equipped to track how our everyday actions and their results are potentially creating change. It can sometimes be difficult for core operations, like our finance or accounting teams, to connect the dots between their work and the overarching mission of the organization. We developed individual sub-theories of change for each body of work, so that every team could see the relationship between their team-specific performance measures and our overarching shared result. Developing theories of change for each team also helps visualize and reinforce how their mission-critical work is directly linked to our results. And it shows how the organizational operations performance data (e.g., staff engagement, hiring and departure data, procurement spending, and more) are critical for decision-making, particularly as we embed anti-racist principles in our operations.

Gather qualitative data at every opportunity

Some of our activities can be easily quantified. We can track how many events we hosted for partners and how many resources we created. But because our ultimate goal is building and applying skills to uproot racism in ourselves and our institution, and equipping partners and grantees to do the same, we must track and measure subtle shifts in behavior that aren’t easily quantified. Things we track include changes in the quality of our relationships, the culture of our organizations, and our personal capacity to take risks and use our power in strategic ways.

To capture these things with discipline, we’ve had to treat anecdotes and stories as invaluable forms of data, and draw patterns and themes to understand how changes are taking shape over time. For example, a central part of our theory of change is challenging and replacing harmful elements of white supremacy culture in our relationships and working dynamics. Whether we’re achieving that result is only captured by tracking peoples’ experiences. Did people actually feel something different because of our actions? Over time, these anecdotes can be threaded together into larger stories of impact that connect our efforts to outcomes, as we’ll discuss further in a future piece.

Another way we’ve captured qualitative data is by using a “check-in question” at the start of a meeting to source participants’ attitudes or experiences of something. For example, in a conversation about our results over a quarter, we might open the meeting by hearing one word or phrase from each participant about how they’d describe our impact. The resulting “Word Cloud” can illustrate the intangibles around how we’re working. Comparing Word Clouds over time can reveal interesting qualitative changes.

When we’ve presented or reported on data to all staff, we’ve asked people to share one word that captures how they feel about performance management work at Living Cities. Then, we’ve compared the resulting “Word Clouds” over time to see how sentiments change.

Track relationships at all touchpoints

Closing racial income and wealth gaps will require undoing harmful power dynamics, and changing the way that we relate to one another. Therefore, building relationships that allow us to connect to one another’s humanity, grow, and challenge and be challenged by partners is one of the most important things we can do in service of our results.

But we quickly realized that nurturing relationships over time can be hard to boil down into metrics without losing the richness of human interaction. To help meet this challenge, we developed a system to more easily allow staff members to share experiences from events, important meetings and conferences, where much of our relationship-building occurs. Staff can submit a Google form that asks them whether key relationships were formed or deepened, whether their results were achieved, whether they gained any important insights, and if they noticed any examples of our organizational influence. These takeaways become data that all teams can use.

Our performance management is an ever-evolving process. But we know that remaining grounded in our theory of change, and seeking ways to increase our accountability to our intended results, will ensure that we are continuously moving closer to our vision of a better world.


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