Using Data for Organizational Planning

This is the era of “Big Data” and “Cloud Computing.” The topics seem almost otherworldly and created solely for the benefit of big business, social research, and international security rather than for small and medium-sized organizations and nonprofits. However, did you know many of the same concepts and questions used by big data searches can be used by smaller organizations for planning and trend analysis? As the speed of change continues to increase, it is vital to invest in ways to keep up with changes in your clients’ or customers’ lives as well as their needs. Without this, your organization could become outdated and out of touch very quickly. There are a variety of ways to keep up to date that do not require a lot of money or time: satisfaction surveys, focus groups, intentional listening, social media responses and reviews, and using selective Internet sources (like U.S. Census data) are tools that are inexpensive and can provide you with vital information for your planning.

Some of the key planning questions to ask as you plan for the future include:

  • How are my clients’ demographics changing?

  • Which clients are demanding the most resources and attention?

  • How are my clients’ needs and expectations changing from prior years?

  • How are our clients finding out about our programs and services?

  • Which programs and services are being asked for that we are not providing?

  • Which programs and services are we providing that clients are not using?

Let’s consider examples where an up-to-date database can be helpful:

Example #1: Your organization serves low-income families and you know that many of these families live in several nearby neighborhoods. You discover that one of the key low income housing apartments is remodeling and will be charging higher rents. How will this change affect your organization in the next couple of years?

To address this question, your agency needs to know how many families currently live in the area, their income level, and the size of the families. You may need to ask clients who live in the affected apartments where they are looking to move as well as who will be helping them find new housing. Much of this information will already be in your organization’s database (through addresses and program demographics). Note: The information may be in more than one place and you may need to collect new information through interviews and selective listening. Without planning for these changes, some of your organization’s programs may be negatively impacted and new programs that could be developed to serve the changing needs of the neighborhood may not be in place in time to be of help.

Example #2: Let’s look at how changes in the means of transportation may affect your organization. New bus, bicycle, and mass transportation options may change not only how your staff members get to work, but also who is able to more easily travel to your sites and your programming. Also, consider how new Internet service options could make your programs and services available to a wider audience. Knowing how your customers reach you and for what purposes will help you evaluate and plan for future expansion and/or contractions based solely on changing transportation needs and options. In addition, new transportation options may impact the hours and days your organization is open to more effectively serve your customer base.

Example #3: It is critically important to consider changing demographics as you plan for future needs, expansion, mergers, and other program and organizational options. Whether it is a change in immigrants and refugees into your service area, the increase in baby boomer retirements and aging, the number and age of children in your service area, the size of families, or the income levels of your clients, these factors will greatly impact the planning needs of your organization. And they are changing quickly in many of our communities! If your organization has not examined some of the basic demographics of your clients and mapped them for trends and changes over the last three years, you may be quite surprised to find your client base has changed considerably. Lower unemployment rates and an increase in the minimum wage are additional factors that will change some of needs and expectations of many organizations’ service profiles.

Organizational planning is not easy in our changing and volatile world. But most organizations have data sources that can easily be tapped to help note critical trends that can have huge impacts on services and programs. Our organizations need all the help we can get to keep up with the changing needs around us. Tap into your own data sources as well as key Internet resources to help your organization plan for our changing times.