Making Data Dashboards Actionable
How to Create a Dashboard that Supports Decision-Making and Tells a Story
Scholars Unlimited is a nonprofit organization with a mission to foster academic, social, and emotional growth for children living in metro Denver communities. They provide support through after-school and summer programming to students that live in underserved communities. While the team at Scholars Unlimited has always worked to center evaluation as a strong component of their work, they recognized an opportunity to deepen their use of data to drive better decision-making and prove their impact.
Like many organizations, Scholars Unlimited knew they were making an impact in their Denver community, but communicating that impact wasn’t as easy as they knew it could be. The outcomes of their programs and services lived across different tools and systems. Pulling the different pieces of their story took their staff a fair amount of time and effort. In addition to telling their impact story, Scholars Unlimited wanted to identify the strengths and opportunities for growth in their programs, and have the right data that could provide those insights.
Scholars Unlimited partnered with a ResultsLab Impact Manager to get support on the implementation of their data needs from someone with the necessary skills and experience, and who could also serve as a strategic thought partner to their team. The Impact Manager – a consultant from the ResultsLab team who functions as a part-time evaluator for the organization – worked closely with the organization’s team to design and build a dashboard that was tailored to their specific organizational needs, and that uplifted “the right” data points so their team could:
- Understand and communicate the impact their programs were having on their Scholars
- More easily uncover opportunities where they could improve their programs and organizational practices in service of better achieving their organizational outcomes
Uncovering “the Right” Data
When an organization identifies it might benefit from a dashboard to be a one-stop shop showcasing its most relevant and actionable data, it can be tempting to dive right into your data sources and the different visual options. This temptation can quickly lead to overwhelm. Or lead to data or visuals that are easy to build but difficult to act upon. To create a dashboard that Scholars Unlimited staff could actually use to make decisions, and a dashboard that told a story, we started our process with a few key steps to ground the working strategy:
- Alignment and clarity on Scholars Unlimited Impact Strategy (also known as Theory of Change or a Logic Model). This included clearly defining:
- Target populations: who their programming is intended to reach to have the most impact.
- Outcomes: the short- and long-term positive changes their organization hopes to have on their participants as a result of their work.
- External factors: any factor that could positively or negatively influence those outcomes to help triangulate their organization’s role in the bigger picture of literacy, and social and emotional learning (SEL) development in a child’s life.
- Creating a learning agenda comprised of the questions Scholars Unlimited and their stakeholders had about their program, their community, and their impact that could be answered through data. The learning agenda is a critical anchor to guide what data should be collected in a way that is strategic and intentional.
- Creating a measurement plan, which outlined the data points that Scholars Unlimited would need to collect to answer the learning questions set in their learning agenda.
- Documenting the current practices to see what tools Scholars Unlimited was using to collect data, for what programs, and for what purposes.
- Mapping an outline of the dashboard to identify the key data sources, indicators (data points), and visuals to ultimately help viewers see the impact story and gain insights to Scholars Unlimited set learning questions.
“Doing the strategic work before building the dashboard made things crystal clear. The connections are easier to see and make sense of – our team really gets it now and can get direct utility from the dashboard we worked on with ResultsLab.” – Jennie Merrigan
Decisions and Impact Backed by Data
With the dashboard, Scholars Unlimited can more effectively demonstrate the positive outcomes achieved by their programs. The organization can also more quickly and easily access the data that backs up their impact story, and communicate their value and success to stakeholders with greater clarity.
The engagement also improved the team’s ability to use the data they were collecting to make data-informed decisions. Going through a process that aligned the data points to the organization’s goals, as well as research in the field of youth literacy, increased the team’s confidence. They knew they were leveraging the right data that could ultimately help them identify areas for improvement and strengthen their programs to better meet the needs of the communities they serve.