Data Journeys - Capability

By: Dylan Williams & Vishad Sharma   |   Purpose   |

About: This series explores the voices of individuals and organisations championing the use of data and evidence as tools for disruptive change. Their inspirational work serves as a guide for how the for-purpose sector can embrace these practices. The series was authored by Purpose, a social impact organisation with support from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Photo credit: The Smith Family

Data has the ability to dramatically improve the effectiveness of the social impact sector. It allows us to find hidden patterns, gives us the tools to understand where new strategies can be deployed, and lets us build the evidence to dismantle entrenched disadvantages. 

Exploring examples of innovative data approaches, we have identified 3 key pillars that are critical in guiding this work. They are the role of trust, capability, and community. This three-part content series brings to life these key pillars and provides stories of how organisations are embracing data and evidence. 

In this piece, we explore the role of capability.

It goes without saying that an organisation’s capability to deploy more advanced data practises is critical, and that unlocking more funding to support capability development is a barrier that must be overcome.

However, this is not just about technical capability, as we learned from Anne Hampshire of The Smith Family. Most organisations are on a journey to increase their data maturity, and this is something that Anne has been spearheading as Head of Research and Advocacy. She sees data as core to achieving the organisation's impact goals of breaking cycles of disadvantage for young people. 

“Data initiatives need to be integral to the organisation and have to be incorporated into everything that the organisation does.” Not for profit organisations need all departments and teams to be aligned on the benefit of using data - not just those directly involved in the collection and analysis of data. This was a central insight from Anne’s experience in shepherding this journey at The Smith Family. It is also pertinent for donors looking to support this kind of evolution within their partners. 

To be successful, the role of data and evidence couldn’t just stay as the responsibility of the research team. The organisation needed to go through a more fundamental change from the board, through senior management, down to the programme teams who are directly working with young people and their families. 

This cultural change across the organisation comes to life through the story of a new data sharing initiative that The Smith Family has embarked on with the South Australian government. 

Learning for Life is a programme that supports children experiencing poverty, providing critical support to help them stay at school and go on to further studies or a job. A crucial part of this work involves direct engagement from The Smith Family’s team with children and their families, who are part of the programme. 

“We have access to a longitudinal dataset from our Learning for Life programme and we collect a range of data on the children, young people and their families that the programme supports. We found changes in attendance and achievement over time had [an] influence in ways that we were previously unaware of.”

Photo credit: The Smith Family

This posed the question of how live access to performance and attendance data could help programme teams better focus their support to families. Here is where the South Australia Department of Education enters the story as the data custodian of information that could inform how The Smith Family works with young people on the Learning for Life programme, with the aim of significantly improving their educational outcomes. 

Through a relationship of trust that Anne had built with the department’s leadership, a journey began that involved advocacy to change state laws to allow for a data sharing agreement with a non-government entity; the establishment of the data sharing agreement; the technical build of user-friendly dashboards that could provide live data to field teams; and the training of those teams. And most importantly, the engagement and consent of families to participate in the initiative. 

The design of dashboards was crucial so that they could be used by staff at all levels. “Data is organised in ways that team members are already familiar with and presented in ways that are easy to interpret, using clear categories and colour coding.” 

“Team members are already identifying ways to use the data to support improved student attendance, ultimately leading to more students being likely to finish year 12 studies.”

If there is one thing that becomes clear through this story, it is that data capability plays out in many different ways across an organisation. Often data capability is considered through the narrow lenses of data collection and data science, or monitoring and evaluation. To that end, donor support for data capability can also be limited to these areas. 

However, if we look at all the ways in which data capability played a role in the creation of this initiative, we see evidence of the cultural change across the organisation that Anne described. Of course, initiatives like this require technical data skills. This capacity does not need to sit inside the organisation as those skills can often be externally sourced from vendors and other partners. In this particular case, it was the South Australian Department of Education itself that built the dashboards through a high quality co-design process with The Smith Family.  

Beyond this, we can see that The Smith Family needed the capability to understand the role data could play in enhancing its outcomes. It needed the capability that allowed for trust to be built with a data custodian. It needed to be able to present a compelling case for data sharing that successfully advocated to change laws.

And it needed to build the capability of its field teams, not just to use the dashboards, but to undertake the most critical component from an ethical and equitable perspective. Those teams needed the ability to have a meaningful dialogue with the families in the programme, building trust and gaining consent to participate. 

Through this work, The Smith Family is creating the enabling environment to achieve better outcomes for Australian young people experiencing poverty.

If you are interested in hearing from more voices that are guiding the data revolution in the for-purpose sector, or you are involved in a data programme that you believe people would benefit from hearing about, please sign up here.

Apr. 07, 2022

Philanthropy Weekly Newsletter

Sign up to our weekly e-newsletter for sector news, expert opinion and resources.

Sign up here