Data training to improve public grant-making

For the past two years, Communities Count has worked with local governments and philanthropies to develop data trainings that will help public agencies understand community needs and fund strong programs to address them.

Looking to East King County

Revealing barriers to nonprofit grant applicants’ success

In early 2015, graduate students from the University of Washington’s Community-Oriented Public Health Practice MPH program analyzed applications that did and did not receive funding from Communities of Opportunity, a regional initiative to stem the tide of increasing racial and geographic disparities in health outcomes. They found that the probability of receiving funding was closely linked to applicants’ ability to use data in proposals: While all funded applications had used data effectively, only 41 percent of unfunded applications had done so. Some of the unfunded proposals might have offered innovative programs or responses to emerging needs in the community but, according to the students’ report, “they were unable to articulate their need or link the data they provided to the actual project.”

From this analysis, Communities Count recognized that building stronger data capacity among service organizations could improve the quality of the applicant pool and the selection process. As part of their project with Communities Count, the students contacted organizations that had been turned down for funding to solicit suggestions of topics they would want to learn about in a data workshop.

Discovering the popularity of data training

Ideas from these interviews guided the development of Communities Count’s first training, which focused on using data to tell a story that supports an organization’s case for funding. Designed with the participants’ needs in mind, the workshop was:

  • Small — limited to 30 participants;
  • Accessible — held in a community venue in a low-income area of South Seattle that was easy to reach by transit, car, and bike;
  • Interactive — with hands-on exercises, plus lots of time for questions.

The workshop filled up quickly with staff from a wide variety of community-based organizations, government, and philanthropy. In the month after training, Communities Count also offered follow-up support through customized technical assistance. Participants reported that both the training and the technical assistance were valuable, and said they would attend additional sessions if they were offered.

A long waiting list for the first offering and requests for more workshops confirmed an unmet need for training. Over the next several months, Human Services departments from cities in South, East, and North regions pooled their resources to partially support two large data trainings – each filled to capacity with waiting lists.

Moving upstream in the grant-making process

These trainings — primarily for nonprofits serving King County cities outside Seattle – took place several weeks before the application deadlines for Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) and other city funding. To ensure the trainings were aligned with the criteria by which applications would be judged, Communities Count consulted with city staff who would be rating the applications and customized the curriculum to meet their needs. Held at locations in South and East regions, the workshops drew more than 200 participants and received enthusiastic ratings. A review of the subsequent applications found that many cited data sources included in the trainings.

Communities Count’s latest efforts center on trainings for Best Starts for Kids (BSK), a voter-approved community initiative to “improve the health and well-being of King County by investing in prevention and early intervention for children, youth, families, and communities.” As with the cities, Communities Count coordinates with BSK staff who write the Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to make sure the trainings align with the goals and evaluation criteria of each team. The trainings are offered in a variety of settings, including bidders’ conferences and webinars.

Learning from the process 

Communities Count has discovered an exciting thirst for learning about data – each workshop has been full and spurred demand for additional and sometimes more advanced sessions. For example, community groups increasingly want to “own” their data and have expressed interest in conducting household surveys, crowd-sourcing data, and analyzing data. While trying to tailor sessions to the needs of each audience, workshop leaders grapple with the tradeoffs between smaller interactive, hands-on workshops and larger, lecture-based classes that accommodate the growing demand for improved data literacy.

Communities Count also recognizes the importance of aligning and training both sides – the groups applying for funding and the staff rating the grant proposals. As funders become more intentional and clearer about what they want to see in applications – with themselves and in their RFPs – they make it easier for applicants to comply and are more likely to adhere to their stated criteria when evaluating applications. Communities Count has a continuing role to play in helping program staff communicate clearly and consistently about application requirements and in helping nonprofits build a compelling case for the services they provide. This should boost both the quality and the clarity of the information used in deciding how to invest public dollars to improve community health, educate our children, and revitalize our neighborhoods.

This blog was co-written by Kathy Pettit, Director of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) and Louise Carter of Communities Count.  A longer version will be posted by the Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement Group, which partners with NNIP to expand training on data and technology on behalf of communities.

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