Data Geeks Unite! Animal Care Expo In Review
Last week I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop at Animal Care Expo, a major conference dedicated to all things companion animal – sheltering, rescue, spay/neuter, etc. The conference is organized by HSUS and my session was titled “Lead by Numbers: Using Research to Improve Your Operations and Campaigns.” The turnout was remarkable, with a standing-room-only audience. It was incredibly exciting to see so much interest in using research to do a better job of helping animals. Finally it has become cool to be a data geek! See what we shared with the Expo attendees…
Our goal for the workshop was to give attendees an introduction to the use of research and statistics to design, evaluate, and improve their organization’s operations. The topics covered included using research to develop external programs and campaigns, improve internal operations, and evaluate nearly every aspect of an animal organization’s efforts. To get more of a sense of what attendees learned, please download the slides from our presentation. You can also download the separate handout.
For those short on time, here’s the summary version. I’ll walk through three slides and some of the talking points for each slide. Please add your thoughts using the comment box below!
Remember Three Things
First, remember that data is everywhere. There are lots of opportunities for you to collect data about your programs and operations. There’s no shortage of data. But that’s not to say there isn’t a shortage of good data.
The key is to distinguish between what’s important versus what is clutter, and this requires starting with a solid mission and measurable goals. The data you focus on and the research you undertake must be to support your mission and goals and your key decisions regarding those goals.
Sounds like a piece of cake, right? Well, of course not, but if I can paraphrase Voltaire, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Research can be difficult and data are never perfect, but that shouldn’t stop you from making those things a priority.
Why Do We Need Data?
- To prioritize effective programs
- It’s necessary for the learning process
- You are not the target audience
- Your foundation supporters want it
The main reason that we need data is to know if our efforts are making a difference. It’s not enough to assume that our programs are working when in fact they could be wasting time and money. We owe it to animals to be smart about how we prioritize our limited resources.
Collecting data is very much a learning process and that is true even when it doesn’t provide you with a perfect answer. The process of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data gives you insights about your organization and your operations that you can’t obtain any other way.
When you’re talking about an externally focused campaign, it’s essential to remember that you are not your target audience. The opinions and behavior of the people we’re trying to change are, by definition, different than ours. That’s why we’re trying to change them. If you think like an animal advocate when designing your programs and campaigns, then you’ll only end up appealing to fellow advocates.
If your organization receives or intends to apply for grant funding, collecting some data is essential. Through one of Faunalytics’ clients I work with the Animal Grantmakers group and I know that foundations are increasingly focused on measuring the impact of the programs they fund. Get ahead of the game by starting before you apply for a grant.
Challenges with Data
- Accurate, reliable data unavailable
- Community-wide data are essential
- Can’t always eliminate other factors
- Adequate resources – time and money
The main challenge is collecting the right data for your program, campaign, or internal operation. Accurate and reliable data are not just waiting there to be analyzed, they have to be sought out. Unfortunately, many groups instead default to just measuring their number of adoptions or surgeries and maybe a few anecdotal indicators of their impact.
Another challenge is the fact that none of us operates in a vacuum, which means that it is important to obtain data for the entire community in which we operate. Many of you are probably working with other agencies in your community to do this already, which is great because you cannot understand your organization without understanding the broader context of how you operate in the local animal welfare community.
If you have accurate and reliable community-wide data, you’re off to an excellent start. But yet another challenge is the wide array of external factors and variables that could affect the data you are collecting. Companion animal situations are affected by broader issues such as economic conditions, weather patterns, etc., which are well beyond the control of you or your organization. The best we can hope to do is adjust for the most influential external variables when analyzing data.
Of course, time and money are always challenges. Finding time in our busy schedules to give impact measurement the attention it deserves is a challenge that we must overcome. Similarly, we need to shift our thinking regarding investment in data and research. The WK Kellogg Foundation recommends spending 5-7% of a program budget on evaluating the program. I suspect that few animal groups invest that much in evaluation, but we should.