Using Data for Collective Impact Step Two: Find the Data

Using Data for Collective Impact Step Two: Find the Data

The second step to using data for collective impact is finding the data your partnership needs. These resources will help you navigate the complexities of data access.

We’ve launched our Data and Collective Impact series to help leaders better use data to achieve a shared result. The series outlines the five steps to using data for collective impact we’ve seen in our work. The first step was Agree on the Data and this post digs deeper on the second: Find the Data. In this and subsequent posts, you’ll find stories to illustrate lessons learned on using data, as well as free resources to help you implement these lessons learned in your own work. 

In the last blog post of this series, I outlined the first step to using data for collective impact—agreeing on the data. If you follow the lessons learned from that blog, you’ll know what data you need to achieve your shared result. But now you’ve got to find it.

Completing the Data Inventory will help you figure out where the data you need live, and who you need to partner with to access them. The Data Inventory can also help identify if the data you need do not currently exist, and how to work with partners to develop them.

Six Ways to Leverage Your Initiative

We’ve identified six different elements you can incorporate into your collective impact initiative to find the data you need:

1) leadership buy-in and support; 2) data sharing agreements; 3) dedicated staff; 4) surveys; 5) (potentially) a data partner; and 6) (potentially) a software platform.

Some partners may be more able and willing to share data than others, and some data may be more easily developed than others. Whatever situation you find yourself in, these six elements will lead you to the data you need.

Note: Because finding and accessing data is often where collective impact spend most of their time in the data management process, this installment of the series is the longest, with a comprehensive list of resources at the end of this blog.

1. Leadership Buy-In and Support

The Strong Healthy Communities Initiative in Newark, NJ is navigating a data-driven culture shift right now with their collective impact work. They are accessing and sharing data with partners, but are struggling to get data they can use for forward-looking, strategic decision making. Much of the data they have access to, particularly from public sector partners, is compliance focused. For example, they know how many students are chronically absent from school, but not the reasons why they are absent. The lack of these strategic data has become a big barrier to achieving their collective impact goals.

How do you get the “right data” to achieve your goals? It requires commitment from leaders of your collective impact initiative to share data from their work with the other partners. This data can then be aggregated and presented to the initiative to create a more complete picture of your collective impact work (more on this in the next post). Getting this sharing buy-in from partners requires many of the same skills and tools outlined in the “Agree on the Data” post in this series.

Yet having partners sign on to gathering and sharing data is just the starting point. Oftentimes a commitment to using data for improvement requires fundamental shifts in the culture of an organization, at staff levels from programmatic up to executive leadership.

2. Data Sharing Agreements

Formalizing data sharing relationships can set expectations for partners and help ensure your collective impact initiative gets the data you need, when you need it. And the more specific these expectations can be, the better. For example, our Integration Initiative member from Detroit shared data across several different partners, but often would get data in the form of PDFs, and not the more usable Excel spreadsheet files. Developing what’s called “data sharing agreements” can help set expectations–like when to share data and in what format–early on in the life of your collective impact initiative.

The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) outlines four elements of successful formalized data sharing agreements: 1) general introduction; 2) data transmission and content; 3) handling and release of data and analysis; and 4) procedural/contractual issues. You can read more about each of those four elements from NNIP, as well as access sample data sharing agreements from NNIP and the StriveTogether network (scroll down to the “Resource” section in Principle 6).

Of course, relying on a data sharing agreement alone will only get you so far. You need to hold partners accountable to the data sharing agreements they sign. The Strong Health Communities Initiative example outlined earlier shows how even with data sharing relationships set, partners may not provide you with the data you actually need. Maintaining this type of accountability requires dedicated staff to manage data-centric relationships.

3. Dedicated Staff

Because the continuous collection of data requires significant staff capacity, creating staff positions to manage data collection and analysis can help you use data more effectively. However, this can be challenging since data capacity is often under resourced for level of expertise needed. The Neighborhood Developers (TND), the managing partner of Chelsea Thrives, a member of the Working Cities Challenge, was able to work within funding constraints to meet data needs by engaging an existing TND staff member on the creation of data dashboard and monitoring tools. That individual has since moved on, and the position is in the process of being filled. Melissa Walsh, Director of Chelsea Thrives, said her experience building out their staffing for data management “highlights the importance of strong data systems and the need to train additional program staff on those systems. Effective systems building, documentation and sharing of knowledge are crucial for transitions and ultimately for sustainability.”

Collective impact initiatives often employ a Data Manager or two who are devoted to the process of using data and continuous improvement. These positions are critical to get data flowing and make sense of the data once you’ve got it, and therefore are often the first hire after the initiative director. There are many examples of sample Data Manager positions to help design what you need in a data manager. The Collective Impact Forum has a sample job description, and StriveTogether has examples of human capital capacity building resources (scroll to the “Resource” section in Principle 7).

If your initiative isn’t quite ready (for funding or other reasons) to staff up to a full data manager, that’s OK. Sometimes this data management role is played by the initiative director for interim periods. Check out our sample job descriptions for initiative directors if that feels reasonable for your initiative now, but remember that mature collective impact initiatives require dedicated data management staffing.

4. Surveys

When our partners in New Orleans realized that the data they really needed – more information on the needs of the city’s large numbers of unemployed African American men – didn’t already exist, they decided to create a survey to generate that data. The survey not only created a new data-base of information not previously available to New Orleans or their partners, it revealed some unexpected results that helped inform their overall planning.

Surveys are a great way to access both qualitative and quantitative data that provide greater context for your work. They can also fill in the gaps where the data you need might not exist or be easily accessible as to help drive decision making. Communities of Opportunity in Seattle/King County has used the White Center Community Development Association’s Community Survey as a rich data source to provide qualitative context to their work reducing health disparities in suburban areas. Results from this survey, and other community data efforts, successfully helped make the case in the state legislature for why an under-resourced neighborhood should be absorbed into the city of Seattle.

One easy to use tool to support data collection is the Spark Policy Institute’s “Right Now” Survey. Communities of Opportunity used this tool to surface emerging opportunities, concerns and partner needs. The Right Now survey was particularly useful at the beginning of the initiative as a way for partners to share input they may not have felt comfortable sharing or had the time to share during already packed meetings. As members got to know and trust each other, the initiative began using the survey as a way to organize observations during meetings. The initiative staff used the data from the survey to take advantage of timely opportunities and inform decisions that addressed concerns of partners.

5. (Potentially) A Data Partner

Some collective impact initiatives have found it helpful to work with an external data partner—such as a university—to support their data collection or development. Almost all collective impact initiatives have a partner with some additional research or data capacity at least nominally involved. But Monique Baptiste-Good, the Executive Director of the Strong Healthy Communities Initiative, said in an interview that, in her experience, relying on a third party data partner is most useful when an initiative has a large amount of data to analyze. The data partner can help determine what the data are “saying.” If the data partner is instead developing or creating most of the data to the initiative, rather than gathering it from other sources, that partner could have too much control over what data is used in the data-driven feedback loop and what isn’t.

While it may be tempting to fully outsource all your data work to a third party data partner, tread carefully. Like with any partner, a data partner should have a specific purpose for being engaged in the collective impact initiative. So, unless you’re initiative is swimming in data, it may make sense to engage third parties more sparingly to support your data management. (One exception is if your Data Inventory highlighted an organization as a potential data source.)

6. (Potentially) A Software Platform:

Our partners at Chelsea Thrives are working with approximately 25 partners to track and share data for the Chelsea Hub Model, an innovative community mobilization model which is a specific strategy within Chelsea Thrives. To do this, they use something that comes standard on most personal computers: Microsoft Excel. Often when people think of data sharing and data access, their brain goes right to big fancy software platforms. But focusing on creating a software solution first can cause more trouble than it’s worth. Efforts often stall when people spend too much time looking for software, and not enough time trying to use data to improve their activities.

Many collective impact initiatives do fine with a simple Excel spreadsheet. If you’re bringing together several sources of data, it may be helpful to invest in a software platform to manage your data. But make sure you do it only after your partners are fully bought in, otherwise you may end up getting unusable PDFs like what happened in Detroit, and your expensive software system will sit on the shelf.

If you are at the point where a software platform is right for you, read Urban Institute’s “Navigating Performance Management Software Options.”

Next up in our series: “Present the Data.” Subscribe to the series so you don’t miss it!

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