Four ways data can build and strengthen relationships for your cross-sector partnership.

Data is a scary topic to some people. The word “data” can bring up memories of high school calculus class and all the headaches that math homework created. But accessing data and using data is a big part of collective impact. If an initiative can’t manage its data, it’s unlikely that initiative will be successful with its work.

If an initiative can’t manage its data, it’s unlikely that initiative will be successful with its work.

So, we decided to spend two days discussing all things data at a recent convening of the members of The Integration Initiative. What became clear throughout the conversations was that a lot of the challenges faced by collective impact initiatives around data are actually challenges related to relationships. Data are often used as a tool to communicate a message, or information, to a partner, such as why their organization should get involved in the collective impact initiative. Leaders often struggle with how to use data effectively to secure buy-in and commitments to changing behavior, which can create tension with individual relationships.

A TII Site's Data Walk Presentation with comments via Post-Its A Woman Taking Notes during the TII Learning Community Data Walk

Participants at The Integration Initiative Learning Community in Dallas kicked-off the two day convening with a ‘Data Walk’ in which they presentations of partners' data.

From conversations at the Learning Community, and with other partners in Living Cities’ collective impact portfolio, I’ve found four main ways that data can be used more effectively as a tool to build and strengthen relationships among cross-sector partners:

1. Tell a Story with Qualitative Data

When people think of data, they almost always think of numerical, or quantitative, data. But data can be qualitative too, and sometimes these data can be much more powerful than hard numbers. At the recent convening of all members of the Strive Network, author Dan Heath emplored attendees to rely less on graphs and charts to engage their partners and instead grab attention by pulling out a human story from the trends revealed by the data, such as the story of a student who was able to graduate from college despite being from a less-privledged background. This type of qualitative information may not be able to rigorously point to impact in the way more traditional data collection might, but telling your initiative’s story is an important supplement to tracking numerical outcomes over time.

Collecting qualitative data can also be done in a way that more deeply engages the community in your collective impact initiative. Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis has worked with the City government in an arts-based program to engage residents who have not been involved in a city planning project previously. The program, Creative CityMaking Minneapolis, has used visual arts and performance to collect information about the needs and hopes of city residents, and has been able to incorporate this information into broader city planning initiatives.

2. Use an Asset-Based Frame for Your Data

What has become clear with our partners in The Integration Initiative (TII) is the importance of using an “asset-based” lens for talking about data. Many of the partners in TII are working in communities that have deeply ingrained negative stereotypes, often because of the race of the community members. They are trying to change these narratives to emphasize the potential of these communities and the residents that live there. They are focusing on more asset-based language with stakeholders, particularly private sector partners.

Flipping this narrative can start out as simple as framing the outcomes you track in different ways. For example, our partners in San Francisco have decided to track the “retention rate” in their public housing units rather than the “eviction rate.” Both data points say essentially the same thing over time, yet one encourages more positive conversations with partners and stakeholders than the other.

3. Agree on Outcomes to Ensure Accountability

In a cross-sector partnership like a collective impact initiative, accountability is critical. If the individuals at the table don’t hold each other responsible for what they say they will do, the partnership will eventually fall into disarray.

One way to strengthen accountability between individuals in the partnership is to get them to agree on a measurable shared result and a set of outcomes that track to that shared result. Putting this outcomes framework in place keeps the data you care about at the center of your partnership, and thus the relationships that make up the partnership. For example, TII participants at the recent Learning Community completed an exercise that analyzed one outcome they are trying to achieve based who in their community influences that outcome. One of the TII partners realized that the entire business community wasn’t involved in their work, and committed to form relationships with them over the next several months.

4. Leverage Relationships to Access Data

One big challenge we have seen, both in TII as well as our Prepare Learning Circle cohort, is that collective impact initiatives sometimes struggle to actually access the data they need to measure progress. They know the data exists, and maybe even where the data live, but do not have the right relationships to get them and use them. For example, a school system could house the needed data in various different departments, but not have a centralized place to access or distribute them. Or, the data could live across all the local universities.

The leaders of a collective impact initiative need to rely on their partners to access this data. Data accessibility could be an initial ask for partners joining a collective impact initiative, and allow less-engaged partners to contribute and increase their involvement in the partnership.