David Manchester

David Manchester 

Graduate Research Associate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University

PhD Student in Social Policy, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University  

Research and/or data analyses studies:

Q&A with
David Manchester

David Manchester (MA/MPP) grew up in Scarsdale, New York. He received a B.A. in International Relations from American University and an MA/MPP from Hornstein in 2015. David is currently a Graduate Research Associate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and a Ph.D. student in Social Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, also at Brandeis University. He has worked as a legislative assistant in Hadassah's Washington Action Office and then as an operations analyst at Blackboard, Inc. where he honed his skills in quantitative metrics and evaluation. He is president of the Board of Directors of American University Hillel and has served on the Advisory Board of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Birthright Israel NEXT DC, and Young Leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. In 2012, David was chosen for the Washington Jewish Week’s Minyan List composed of the 10 most interesting Jews in the DC area. 

Q: How and why does data matter in nonprofit decision-making?

Nonprofits benefit from data as it offers a measure to consider impact and can identify ways to improve the work we do. Markets promote sound decision making by connecting earnings to sales. The success or failure of a product will directly impact its sales and the company’s profits. In the nonprofit sector there is no direct connection between programs and revenue. Funders are the main source of capital resulting in revenue serving more as an input to our work than a measure of an organization’s success. As a result, organizations require a way to understand the community around them and the impact they are generating. It is through the systematic use of data that organizations can set target outcomes, measure their ability to achieve those goals, and identify areas where they could improve their impact. Without data, we would rely on anecdotal information which often benefits a vocal minority but potentially does not generate the greatest potential impact. 

Q: Do you think most Jewish nonprofits use data in their decision-making? Or just a few? What is the trend in your experience or understanding?

We are currently seeing an increasing use of data primarily driven by a donor base that is used to having access to data in their daily lives and expect the same from organizations they support. In addition to using data more, we as a community need to become more comfortable having open discussions between funders and organizations. Data is often used for marketing purposes focusing on findings that look good but organizations and funders should push for open conversations about challenges identified by data and work together in a constructive manner.

Q: What are the most common reasons nonprofits cite for not using data in their decision-making? 

If we as a community want to continue improving our organizations and programs we need to begin to include funding for data collection, analysis, and learning as a standard expense line for all program areas. Additionally, we need staff and funders to agree that the purpose of data and evaluation is the long term success of an organization. No program is perfect and an evaluation should always find places for improvement. If a program is not meeting the desired objectives, we should give staff the time to learn from the findings and adjust the program and not make short term decisions on funding if we believe in the program’s potential. Such a commitment from funders and leaders to support the improvement of programs will make staff and organizations more comfortable incorporating data. 

Q: What are the most common pitfalls in collecting and/or analyzing data that you’ve observed? How do you overcome these?

As a community we often discuss the wrong measures. Many organizations frequently discuss how many individuals they engaged in a year. This is a very easy measure to track but is meaningless in the mission of most organizations as it does not discuss their experience, learning, or change. It is often when an organization is not satisfied with their turnout that we hear about the experience. I was once told by a program director that “the turnout was significantly lower than expected but that those who attended met new people and had an engaged discussion around a series of texts.” When I asked the director if she believed attendees would have had a similarly positive experience had the attendance met their expectations, she hesitated. 

Once something is being measured it will begin to be prioritized by staff. However, if the wrong measures are used or there is a way to game the system it could generate the opposite effect than desired. I regularly consider this challenge when setting targets for my Hillel where I currently serve as president of the board. With three full time staff, there are only so many student meetings and programs they can attend. We must balance our desire to reach every Jewish student and our desire to have many meaningful interactions with each of them. We do not have the staff time to achieve both so we must consider the balance that will maximize the impact the organization generates.

Q: What procedure do you use to determine which metrics you need?

It may surprise you how many organizations struggle to clearly identify the outcomes they seek to achieve. As a result, I begin with a series of questions to stakeholders to determine what it is they are trying to accomplish. You can consider some of these:

  1. What is the issue impacting the community that we are trying to address?
  2. What will happen over the next 10 years if this goes unaddressed?
  3. What will the community look like in 10 years if you are successful? (Often the reverse of the previous question.)
  4. What do you hope participants experience?
  5. Do you hope to change anything about their life?
  6. What do you think the goals of the organization are?

Because many programs are seeking out different goals it is important to customize the analysis for their goals. I also review any reporting requests from funders and foundations. If you are designing a new system, you want to make sure you will capture what funders are interested in and engage them in conversation if you think they are not asking the correct questions. Once those are identified, I typically will develop a logic model with the staff that seeks to document the order in which outcomes will be measurable and then begin building measures based on the desired outcomes identified.

Q: Please share a hypothetical story that demonstrates how a specific data-set might be used by a nonprofit to positive benefit.

As we are just closing a busy holiday season, many organizations will take time to ask congregants or attendees what they thought about different aspects of their experience. Many of these individuals will not frequent our facilities for the rest of the year. Others may be new and having initial impressions about the community. Listening to their feedback could suggest ways to improve next year. Take a question about how welcoming the community was or if they met someone new. A regular attendee is more likely to complete your survey and more likely to have felt welcomed because they had a core social group there. However, how did that new attendee feel? Did they walk in, find a seat, pray, and then leave? If so, chances are they are not coming back. But how can you use that lesson to change their experience next year? Can you create a time for people to meet those around them? Maybe work with ushers or greeters to make sure they are being friendly and welcoming to people who may not be sure where to go. If you engage a younger crowd who might be settling in for the first time can you help arrange Rosh Hashanah dinners for people who are less connected? Each of these could be questions and ideas you consider if you find that newer members are not feeling connected.

Q: Do you use data visualization when reporting data? Is this important? How do you decide how to present your data?

Visualizations are essential. They not only help individuals who are more visual in their thinking but given the limited amount of time people spend reading reports they help focus attention on important findings and measures. The biggest driver of how data is presented is based on the type of data you have. For example, geographic data should be presented as a map so people can compare neighboring areas easily. If you have several measures on the same scale it is useful to present them in a way that they can be compared. If you are looking for visualization ideas, I really like this checklist for data visualization on Ann K. Emery’s blog. 

Q: What strategies do you recommend to nonprofit managers for overcoming weak math skills?

Work within your skills. For internal data work, most of what you will be tracking requires basic math such as percentages or counts. If you try to take on too much initially, you will set yourself up to struggle and are much less likely to succeed. At the end of the day, most of what you will be calculating can be done with a few functions in Microsoft Excel. If you are working with a funder who is requiring more complex analysis, make sure they are providing funding for the work and bring in a group that specializes in research and program evaluation. 

Q: What is your relationship to data? Do you love it or hate it? Is it easy for you or a challenge? What was the trajectory you took to working with data in your current position?

I love data so I tend to jump in when I get access to it. At my first job I was asked to look into data that had been collected about a program and report back to my lay leaders. I loved the project and identified several process changes that I believed would improve the program and save money. Eight years later, those changes are still in place. I then worked for a for-profit company designing and tracking metrics to help make them more efficient and profitable. The work interested me but I struggled with a personally motivating mission. It was during that job that I decided to focus on supporting Jewish organizations to incorporate research and data to their decision making. I came to Hornstein to begin developing the skills I would need to conduct high quality analysis and decided to continue for a Ph.D.

Q: What advice do you give to current Hornstein students with regards to data use in nonprofit decision-making?

Over your careers, data will become essential for any nonprofit. Funders are already becoming savvier with data but you should lead the way and be ahead of them. The potential measures to track are vast and can be overwhelming. You will never be able to measure everything. As a result, you cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you are working in-house, start small and grow as you gain skills and capacity.  But constantly look back and make sure you are tracking the best measures to drive your success.

This Q&A with David was published in the Hornstein Program's November 2016 issue of Impact. If you would like to quote any part of this conversation, please attribute content to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and link to this page. All rights reserved.