How to prioritize which data to collect and keep

One of the things that can feel overwhelming for a lot of people, whether you’re beginning to collect data for the first time or you’re trying to clean up a decade’s worth of data, is how to prioritize which data you need.

Of course, there’s data you’re required to collect and keep due to regulations, taxes, grant contracts.

And then there’s the data that you will need in the course of your operations—like where to send donation thank you letters, volunteer contact information, client names, budget totals, event attendees, etc.

But of that second category, which data do you need to keep?

And, if you’re starting out, what data should you collect that would be helpful?

Here’s how I like to answer that question:

A question you can answer using dataWhat action can the organization take based on this data?What data do you have (or can you get) that would be needed to answer this?
Example: Which social media channel generates the most conversions?Example: We can change how much time we spend on various channelsExample: Click through rate
Table to use for prioritizing data to collect

By filling in this table, I can get a lot of clarity on which data is worth keeping or collecting.

First, identify some questions you’d like to be able to answer using data.

These are typically things that might help you make a decision.  For example, is our current marketing strategy working as we’d hoped?  Is our program achieving the intended goal?  Did we budget appropriately for our technology needs? 

Next, determine what actions you could take based on answering that question.

Perhaps you’ll spend more time on your TikTok content than YouTube if that’s what the data proves to be more effective.  Maybe you’ll be able to (combined with demographic data) notice that your program is more effective for certain age groups than for others.  Or you can budget more realistically for your technology needs in the future.

Last but not least, determine what data is needed to answer that question and evaluate whether you can actually obtain that data or whether it would be ethical to collect or keep it.

Of course, there are plenty of things we’d love to be able to answer.  For example, we’d be interested to know what drives those seemingly random donations from new donors.  But maybe it’s really not feasible to obtain that data beyond how they got to our donation page (e.g., from an email vs. social media vs. something else).  Or perhaps we’d like to know how long the effect of our program lasts, but we work with a population that moves frequently. 

Then again, there’s data that is highly sensitive in nature.  Like someone’s undocumented status or the fact that an individual has contacted your organization about services related to intimate partner violence. 

If you are dealing with data that puts your constituents at risk should it end up in the wrong hands, consider whether you actually need this data to fulfill your mission and if so, what steps you can take to minimize data collected, secure it, and carefully discard it as soon as possible. 

NTEN’s Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology is a great resource to check out for more considerations for your data collection and data management practices.

Tips for starting a new job remotely

Since many organizations went remote in 2020, many people have been starting new jobs remotely.  As a freelancer and independent consultant, I started my first remote gig in 2016.  And even before that, as someone who worked at an organization with partners nationwide, I frequently worked with colleagues who spent 50% of their time on the road as well as with people scattered across the country and whom I still haven’t met in person.

However, many people are still starting new jobs remotely for the first time – as I was reminded when a friend recently asked for advice before their first day. 

Consider the organizational and team context.

Has the team always worked fully remotely, or have some of the team members worked together in person?  Or, is the organization working in a hybrid form – you’re fully remote, but not everyone is? 

Teams that have been remote from the start tend to have designed all of their internal processes around being a distributed team.  While organizations that made their digital transformations as a result of the pandemic have figured out a lot of things by now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team you’ll be working with isn’t still relying heavily on relationships that had been built when the team worked together in person.  And depending on how a hybrid environment is set up, people who are in office may forget that things still need to be done differently for teammates who are remote.  For example, that the team is no longer all within one time zone.

Also consider that, at a large organization hiring lots of people, they’ve had more opportunities to iron out the remote onboarding process.  Smaller organizations that may only hire 1-2 new people a year may still be figuring things out.

Be more proactive and intentional in building relationships.

It used to be that your manager could simply walk you around the office on your first day and you’d meet most of the people you needed to meet that way. Then maybe you’d have some meetings set up with the key people you’d be working with over the next couple weeks.

Like all of the tips I’m mentioning, relationship building is something you want to do regardless of whether you’re starting your new job in person or remotely.  However, you’ll want to be even more intentional in both meeting people (and asking them whom you should meet with) and in building relationships with those folks.  On the other hand, it may also be easier to meet with people who normally would have been located in different offices or who traveled a lot.

Here’s a thread that shares a great approach to meet and greets:

If you find it hard to remember to circle back with people, and especially if your organization is large and dispersed, consider taking notes on any suggestions they made (e.g., to talk with such and such person) or insights they shared, and put a reminder on your calendar for a couple months later to let them know how that suggestion worked or how that insight was helpful.

Learn the time zones—and that these are not the same as working hours.

One major mental adjustment for people who are not accustomed to remote work or working with people who are not collocated is remembering that people may be in different time zones and/or may have different working hours.  And for those of who have the flexibility, we may be trying out new structures, like only having meetings during certain hours and reserving other time for heads down work.

Perhaps everyone in your organization lives in the same region and is simply working remotely during the pandemic.  But even if they are, this doesn’t mean they didn’t decide to take a couple weeks to visit family and work from a different part of the country.  And it doesn’t mean that their hours are the same as if they would be commuting to and from the office.  I know someone who starts his workday at 5 so that he can be done when his kids come home from school.

It is always a good idea to ask about general working hours or about preferences for scheduling meetings.  For example, although I start working earlier, I usually try not to schedule meetings before 10 a.m. so I can get some focused time in first.

Figure out how to make use of existing tools and practices to communicate about your time zone and work schedule.  Some people include their time zone next to their phone numbers in their email signatures (if phone numbers are shared).  Shared calendars are useful for conveying working hours and availability for meetings—however, different teams and people have different norms around this and in how shared calendars are used (if at all).  Often, it’s best to explicitly discuss this with the people you’ll be working with most closely.

Find out how the team shares information.

Speaking of how teams use shared calendars, if they do, it will be helpful to understand how teams share various types of information.  Some teams are better at explicitly articulating this and cover it during onboarding, but in general there are usually things that tend to be things that people take for granted because they’re simply used to it.

  • How is information shared differently at the team and organizational levels? 
  • Do they use a chat or messaging platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams?  If so, what gets shared publicly or within team channels vs. via private message?
  • How does the team use shared calendars?  Are there calendars for work deadlines, editorial calendars, when team members are out, etc.?
  • What gets shared in team meetings vs. email?  Are there shared meeting notes?
  • Are people expected to share back with the rest of the team after attending a webinar or a conference?
  • Where are files stored and shared, and what are practices around that?
  • Is work often done in public or collaboratively, or do people typically work on their own before sharing the final product?

Ask about communication preferences—and share yours.

And of course, it’s helpful to ask your colleagues about their individual communication preferences.  I’ve worked with people who loved a quick Slack chat, others who preferred the phone for something that required back and forth discussion, and some who preferred email or scheduled meetings, and still others who were okay with a spontaneous video call.

It’s also important to communicate your preferences, both towards the beginning and per individual instances – such as asking if you could hop on a call after the 5th email in as many minutes.  Some questions to help you get started:

  • Are you okay with sharing your phone number?  (This may depend on other factors like whether your employer gives everyone a work phone/phone number, whether colleagues are good at understanding time zones, etc.)
  • If you’re okay with sharing your phone number, is this for certain instances (e.g., a quick text to tell me your Internet went down before our meeting) or can folks treat this like a work phone number and call any time during business hours?
  • Are you okay with spontaneous phone or video calls?  Would you like a quick message to ask if now’s a good time?  Or would you prefer to get a request and schedule a time?
  • Are there platforms that work better for you?  (For example, you have a hearing impairment and prefer video calls so that you can use captioning.  Or you just went to the dentist and can only type until the novocaine wears off.)
  • How will you communicate times when you are working but need to focus?  (The office equivalent would be closing your door, if you normally keep it open.)

It should go without saying, but since people still seem to do this: If you’re a manager and want to quickly chat with a direct report, please please please mention the topic so that the other person doesn’t have a panic attack.  There’s a vast difference between, “Do you have a few minutes to discuss how the presentation went?” and “We need to talk.”  (Also a good idea even if you’re not the other person’s manager.)

What else?

Is there anything else you would advise for someone starting a new job remotely for the first time?  Drop a line and let me know.

Hiring in a Candidate’s Job Market

The last couple months, I have been thinking about a conversation years ago with a colleague who was hiring for a role and was trying to decide between two candidates: Candidate 1, who had basically done the job somewhere else, and Candidate 2, who was coming from a different field but had the requisite skills if not the domain-specific knowledge. 

My colleague really wanted to hire the career-switcher, feeling like this person might bring a new perspective.  On the other hand, the department (of four people) was getting ready for a key staff member to go on maternity leave and it was worthwhile to have someone who could hit the ground running and require less training.  This is a valid consideration.  My colleague also shared with me their fear that, since this role would be their first hire, they would be scrutinized and that it would be riskier to hire the candidate from a different field.  So, my colleague hired the experienced candidate.  (Which also meant the department remained…well, you could use the same general physical description for every single member of the team.)

The candidate who was hired left 18 months later for a more senior role at another organization.  At the time, my colleague was still in the department – meaning there was no room for the experienced person to move up.  And so, they had to hire all over again.

It’s an old and common story.  It is far from the first time I’ve had a hiring manager share with me this same decision-making scenario.

Why do we keep doing this?  I mean, I get why.  And true, not everyone is looking to move up.  But many people do want the ability to grow in some way—and to have that recognized.  Hiring only someone who has done the job before is an extremely shortsighted view. 

In this current Wild West of a job market, companies are offering signing bonuses for senior level positions that are typically not in fields where signing bonuses are the norm.  I wonder if these same companies are willing to sponsor H1-B visas.  (The cost of sponsoring an H1-B visa is considerably less than the last signing bonus that was mentioned to me.). I have asked one company (where a friend works) who has been in dire need of people, whether they’d be open to people who are less experienced—recent graduates or career switchers—given that they’ve been trying to fill some roles for nearly a year now.  They were not.

Meanwhile, I know and have known a number of people who have been seeking and struggling to obtain full-time positions that they could certainly do well, even if their resume is a bit winding and storied and full of a wide breadth of experience rather than some sort of neatly packaged ascent of linearity.  (I have been one of those people.) We’re talking about people who have been looking for full-time jobs for a year, two years. 

How is it serving your organization to be running your people ragged and chasing after senior level people who—at some point—are going to run out if you never develop the pipeline?  If you never take a chance on anyone?  And if you only take chances on people whom you can see yourself in?

Not to mention the costs of attrition.  Does it really save your organization that much to hire someone who can “hit the ground running” if you’re going to have to repeat the hiring process every 18-24 months?* 

Forget about the costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and onboarding.  How disruptive is it to your teams every time someone leaves? 

For the roles that are business critical, what does your pipeline look like?  Who will you need in 5 years?  And what are you doing in your current recruiting, hiring, professional development, and promotion practices to ensure you’ll be able to have the organizational capacity to take advantage of all the opportunities you’re working so hard to create?

*I did not look that up at all—just what it seems to be from my personal experiences watching and cleaning up after employee turnover.

A Quick and Easy Template for All Your Meeting Notes

My whole life, I have been a note taker – not because I have poor memory, but because it is part of how I process information.  If someone is simply talking at me (not with me), and I am doing nothing with this information, then there’s a good chance I’m not likely to remember any of it.  I have live transcribed interview notes.  I have gotten into sketchnotes the past few years.  I have typed up official minutes and jumped into the beautiful fray of collaborative notes.  Mostly though, I prefer a steno pad and a ballpoint.

Take notes however works best for you.

That being said, there are notes that are for you, and there are notes that are for the creation and sharing of knowledge.  Meeting notes fall into the latter category.

To be useful to other people afterwards, meeting notes require a clear structure.  They require some synthesis of what had been discussed, agreed upon, and what remained outstanding.

To be useful during the meeting to the person taking notes, meeting notes require a template that reminds you of all the types of things you need to capture.

There are a lot of specific and formatted templates out there.  You may have a few or 15 at your organization.  But I find that simple is best.  It means I can easily create it from memory without having to search for the correct template for that particular client or committee or type of project.  Which is really helpful when what was supposed to be a 15-minute check-in with your team turns into an apparently-no-one-renewed-our-domain-registration crisis management session.

Here it is my quick and easy template for all meeting notes:

  • Date
  • Participants
  • Agenda
  • Decisions Made
  • Action Items
  • Notes

Date

Having spent enough time working with global teams and generally communicating with people who are not American, I am getting into the habit of writing dates in an internationally friendly format: Month DD, YYYY.  That’s still rather US centric, if at least clearer, so you and your colleagues might prefer DD Month, YYYY, which is how most (the rest?) of the world formats dates.  If you prefer numerical dates and or will be including this in the filename for chronological sorting, I suggest using the ISO standard of YYYY-MM-DD.

Participants

Who was present at this meeting?  Unless it’s a very small team or very short-term project, I typically include last names so as to maintain clarity for when a second Sanket joins the team.  (Trust me, New Sanket and Old Sanket are NOT good ways to distinguish between them.). If this is a meeting across teams or organizations, I may include which group they’re representing as well. 

Basically, if these notes were shared with you and you were not at the meeting, what might you want to know about who was involved in making the decisions?  What information would you need to follow up with people assigned action items if you have questions?  Relevant details will vary somewhat depending on that context of who’s there and who else will use these notes.

Agenda

Every meeting should have an agenda.  It doesn’t have to be super formal, but there should always be a clear purpose for your meeting. 

Many people list the topics or the speaking order in an agenda, and that’s not wrong—but it’s not as effective as listing your objectives.  How will you know if the objectives of the meeting have been achieved?  How do you know when you’re done talking about a topic or if further discussion is needed?  It’s easier to tell if your agenda lists “Choose venue for teambuilding” instead of “Discuss teambuilding.” Make your agenda your guide.

If this truly needs to be meeting and not an email, this means there is likely at least one decision to be made.  Include any decisions to be made in your agenda.

Decisions Made

This space is for recording decisions that have been made.  Documenting decisions is crucial.  Otherwise, everyone notes what they think they heard to be the group’s decision, and you end up with a game of telephone except that you were all in the room (Zoom or conference) believing you took part in the same conversation.  Spelling out the decision in writing gives everyone a chance to refute or clarify, and helps make sure that you are all agreeing to what you think you are agreeing to. 

Note that this decision can change in the future; you’re simply documenting the decision at this point in time.  For example, that you’re going to have your conference in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 2020.  That decision may have made sense in September 2019 but may not have looked so good in March 2020.  This doesn’t mean you may not plan out your 2022 conference and revisit having it in person.  Documenting your decisions allows people to track what happened when and why things changed.

In the rare instance that no decisions were made* (was this actually a presentation rather than a meeting?), you can always leave this section blank, but it’s a handy prompt.

*If you decided to punt a decision to a later date or separate meeting because, for example, you needed some additional information, or because a key stakeholder wasn’t present—then you made a decision!  Add that here.

Action Items

It is very common that after a meeting, some of the people in the meeting will need to do some things.  Documenting those action items here, along with who is responsible and the due date, is again, crucial as a central source of truth and avoiding those pesky arguments about who was supposed to get your domain registration renewed pronto.

Notes

This is where you take notes on the substantive points of discussion.  Updates shared.  Concerns and considerations that went into the decisions that were made.  Any disagreements and how they were resolved.  Contextual information for those action items.  (If there are any questions that require someone to find something out and let the group know – that’s an action item!)  And anything else worth noting!

If you’re taking notes during the meeting and scrambling to figure out where to put things in the moment, it’s completely okay to put everything that’s not the agenda (which hopefully you have beforehand or create together at the start of the meeting) in the Notes section.  Then you can take a few minutes after the meeting if needed to put the decisions made and action items into their appropriate spots.  Since note taking is often done quickly, I often leave them in the notes as is and then try to rewrite them more clearly to put into the Decisions Made and Action Items sections.

Go forth and take notes!  Drop me a line if this has been useful to you or if you have any suggestions.

Improving our defaults

Last week, I was at #17NTC (the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference) and I’m still processing all of the things I learned or ideas that were sparked and how I might apply them in my work or in life generally. But one of the biggest takeaways for me was a question:

How can we improve our defaults?

This was sparked by a session on improving website accessibility for people with disabilities. Someone on the panel mentioned how, in the most recent version of Drupal, they had worked to improve the defaults so that some level of accessibility was built-in even if the organization using the platform didn’t specifically care about or pay attention to accessibility. Most of these things, like offline adjustments for accessibility, could benefit everyone. Otherwise, they were no detriment to the user experience for anyone else.

One of the other suggestions in the website session was that we should build accessibility into our budget and our project schedules so that crossing it out is a active choice. Similar to automatically opting people in and making it an active choice to opt out—which can be annoying for e-mail lists but beneficial for 401k participation.

The day before, I’d been in a discussion with community organizers where we were talking about venue. One mentioned that a challenge was that the space they currently had for events was not accessible for people in wheelchairs or who otherwise had trouble getting up and down stairs. They were raising money for a lift, but in the meantime, they stated upfront in each event description that the venue was not wheelchair accessible. Which sounds a bit counterintuitive, but the organizer mentioned some community members appreciated that the information was there, that they didn’t have to ask. Because they have always had to ask—many organizations hosting events, in leaving this type of information out, made an implicit assumption that people attending their event would not have disabilities.

One: Don’t make people ask.

From the start of the conference, there were efforts at inclusivity all around. When I checked in, I could pick up a pronoun ribbon to attach to my badge. In one look, people could know my name as well as that I use she/her. Other options included him/her, they/them, and there was also a write-in option. There were gender neutral bathrooms. At the opening, the CEO mentioned both of these along with the nursing mothers room, the prayer room, and other amenities that recognized we are not simply session-attending robots. In addition, recognizing that there were many first-time attendees, she explained some common lingo and abbreviations. There were “I’m shy” buttons, for those who were happy to talk to others but perhaps looking for the more outgoing attendees to make the first move. There were Birds of a Feather lunch tables and volunteer-staffed Dine Around Town reservations so, although you could certainly eat with whoever you chose, nobody had to eat alone or had to figure out how to ask a stranger to eat with them in a city they didn’t know.

None of these things are terribly difficult to do. None of these things precluded people from choosing otherwise (e.g. some chose not to use the pronoun ribbons, some chose to make their own plans for meals). But as someone who has come a long way to be able to ask a stranger if they wanted to eat lunch, about what an acronym stood for, and who still struggles with these things, and has watched others stress out about trying to find a place where they could pump or breastfeed, about whether or not they could even get into the building, let alone use a bathroom once inside—it means a lot to be seen.

Two: Inclusivity means nothing without access.

Inclusivity is not the fact that you have taken down the signs that say “No coloreds” or changed your policy from being a men-only club to one that allows female members. Sure, nobody is actively stopping women or people of color from applying to jobs in technology (or any other field). Nor is that an explicit reason people don’t get promotions or aren’t seen as leaders in spite of actions that would demonstrate leadership if only they looked like what we expect a leader to look like.

Inclusivity is meaningless without access; inclusivity is as much about removing barriers as it is about creating the space and opening the doors. As in, not only are we not restricting membership by gender, but we’re also ensuring that this space is actually accessible to all community members for the purpose we aim to serve. If people need to be able to spend a day learning at a conference, they will also need to go to the bathroom, possibly need to pump or breastfeed, may need a space to observe their religion, will need to be able to get in the building and into all of the rooms in which we are holding sessions and events. If we want people to lead at all levels within our organizations, then we need to look for those actions in all places rather than only in the places and people we’d expect.

Three: Improving accessibility + increasing inclusivity = benefits to us all

Revamping your website from looking like Times Square to being less cluttered and focused is not only easier for people using screenreaders but is a better user experience for all of your website visitors—yes. Not having to navigate stairs helps even those of us who can walk when we’re moving heavy carts of equipment or boxes of supplies—sure. Being able to use either single-person bathroom rather than having to (or feeling like you have to) wait for the one that says “Women” even while the one that says “Men” is empty—heck yeah.

But it also benefits us all because we’re getting whole people. People who aren’t spending mental energy (and actual energy, and actual hours of time) on planning out how they’re getting from point A to point B via points F and U because of stairs, or because of needing to pump every few hours or because they need to bring their own interpreter, or because there isn’t a bathroom they can use within a 15 minute walk (as exhibited in Hidden Figures), or because they need to assist their opposite-sex adult child who has special needs in using the bathroom, or because the way they observe their religion frightens some people who do not know them. When people can bring their best selves and their whole selves—why would we not choose that over people bringing only a part of their brain power, a part of their time, a part of their talent and passion and brilliance? If we’re willing to spend time and energy on recruiting/hiring/engaging the right people, why wouldn’t we make sure we could get the best of them?

Four: We will never be completely inclusive or accessible.

Another recurring theme, in the session on website accessibility, and in many others, was to let go of perfect. We may not currently have the budget to install an elevator. Or the capacity to overhaul our website.

But what can we do right now to make it better?

Maybe it’s saying, to our community members who use wheelchairs: We see you. We can’t fix it yet, but we wanted to give you a heads up that there are stairs. Maybe it’s not having a prayer before a meal but having a moment of silence for those who wish to pray, to create that space for them. Maybe it’s considering what will be readable to people who are color blind or who have issues with low-contrast when you’re choosing the colors on your website, or writing detailed descriptions for your images in your blog posts. I remember a friend of mine (who is a quadriplegic) once telling me a story about talking to bar owner about how changing the doorknobs on the bathroom door to lever door handles would make it so much easier for him to get in and out of the bathroom. To which the owner responded, “Oh, that’s it? I could do that.” At a previous organization that only had about 20 staff, they didn’t have space/need for a dedicated nursing mothers’ room, but they installed a lock on the conference room door so it could be used as such.

When we have the opportunities to do the big overhauls, that’s wonderful. But more important is that we try to improve our defaults. Like what if, instead of waiting for people to ask for a raise, we evaluated everybody’s compensation every 6 months, and within our capacity, gave everyone raises who deserved one regardless of whether they had asked? Or asked everyone about professional development they were interested in rather than just saying yes to people who asked about it? What if we simply got rid of urinals? What if the form you filled out to get your event added to the calendar or your business added to a review site asked whether or not the space was wheelchair accessible? If job websites required employers to post jobs with a salary range, rather than employers requiring it of applicants, and to post their policies around family leave rather than requiring candidates to ask? At my husband’s company, it is expected that, if the company pays for you to attend a training or a conference, you will share what you’ve learned with the rest of the team afterwards. I don’t know if that’s policy or just a cultural thing, but that make sense. Whereas I heard another attendee comment on going back to the office and their boss telling them to go back to work and stop bothering them with all of these ideas. Why waste everyone’s time leading someone on if they won’t be able to get into the restaurant, if the highest salary you can offer will not meet the minimum of what they are seeking, if you’re sending them to a training for the sake of checking a box rather than using professional development to enhance capacity, if the contribution people make to the organization have nothing to do with how you compensate them? In addition to being disrespectful and not inclusive, it is simply inefficient. It doesn’t make any sense.

We’re bleeding opportunity cost, and we’re usually not even aware of it.

I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve not mentioned, and pitfalls with some of the things I have. I’m not perfect and plenty of my defaults could use improvement. I had the awesome opportunity to present at the conference, and I talked about flipping the switch with change-resistors: what do we risk by not doing X?

I’ve always struggled with that because quantifying output or input is easy. We spend a lot of money on education, for example, and money in and of itself is not an answer, but neither is not spending that money. What is the cost of an under-educated citizen? Of a person who ends up in prison instead of in a job? Not just the cost of running the prison or feeding inmates, but the cost of that person’s potential had they not ended up there in the first place? I’m willing to bet it is greater than the cost of providing certain services or programs. Not all of them. But probably a significant number. If someone figures out a good way to calculate that, let me know. I don’t know that the data would prove this theory, but I don’t know that it would disprove it either.

I could keep going, but I’ll end on this note:

What are our defaults? What are the inherent assumptions? How might we make our defaults better?