Clockwise from top left: Betsy Baum Block, Corey Newhouse, Justine Wolitzer, Jamie Allison.
It started with shopping for hats.
Betsy Block (MPP ‘06) first met Jamie Allison the week before the start of classes for their first year at GSPP. They bonded as they shopped for hats along Telegraph Avenue. Later, Betsy met Corey Newhouse (MPP ‘03) at a gathering for new students that Corey hosted with Debra Solomon (MPP ‘03) and others. Betsy and Jamie went on to work on their Introduction to Policy Analysis (IPA) projects together. The following year, Betsy did her Advanced Policy Analysis with Corey, founder and principal at the program evaluation firm Public Profit.
The friendships and collaboration established at the Goldman School often follow alumni into the rest of their careers. This was certainly the case with Betsy, Corey, and Jamie; they stayed in touch over the years, sometimes working on projects together.
Through her years in program evaluation, Corey noticed that many of her clients — from large, well-known organizations to smaller, scrappy nonprofits — were unhappy with their data systems but did not know how to go about finding a better solution.
“I was also seeing huge mismatches between what organizations needed and the systems they had,” she says. “Many nonprofits and their funders know they need a better data system, but don't know what kinds of questions to ask of potential vendors, or what kind of planning to do in order to be ready to adopt a new system.”
Betsy, who is an evaluation consultant with B3 Consults and the former Vice President of Evaluation and Insight at the United Way of the Bay Area, observed a similar problem.
“It’s gut-wrenching to watch nonprofits waste money on a bad database,” she says. “One organization I worked with had to spend $60,000 to bail themselves out of a bad database. That translates into real services lost.”
As the Vice President of Programs at the SH Cowell Foundation, Jamie noticed a similar problem, but from a funder’s perspective. (Jamie has since been named the Executive Director for the Walter & Elise Haas Fund).
“Driven by the desire to demonstrate impact, attract funding, and continuously improve the quality of their work, every year I noticed that grantees were seeking Cowell support to implement database systems that would aid in performance management, evaluation and other critical functions,” she says. “As shoppers, however, nonprofits are often at a disadvantage because they lack the expertise to ask discerning questions — of themselves and of prospective vendors — that will get them the information they need to make the best decision. Typically, the only information available to a nonprofit seeking to implement a new database system comes from the vendors’ sales teams, who are likely to highlight the best of what its system offers without fully explaining what implementation will require of the nonprofit in terms of time and technical know-how. As a result, the search for an evaluation system can be frustrating for nonprofits, wasting time and money.”
In 2017. Betsy, Corey, and Jamie decided to work together to address this problem. Joined by 2015 MPP grad Justine Wolitzer, Senior Research Associate at Public Profit (and with support from the SH Cowell Foundation and the Y & H Soda Foundation), they set out to develop a toolkit that would help nonprofits choose the right database.
It was a challenging task.
“In the early days of the project we definitely struggled to wrap our heads around what the toolkit would and wouldn't include,” says Corey. “We knew that we wanted to provide a set of planning tools for nonprofits to use, but what specifically those tools would be, and in what order, took some time to figure out.”
“People are so used to the Yelp-like world of ‘enter a few parameters and and you magically find out what kind of database you should get,’” notes Betsy. “We knew we couldn’t do that, exactly, but we did come up with a short quiz to point people toward some of the things they should be considering.”
Justine also notes the challenge of determining how different organizational features interacted to determine the best data system fit for a particular nonprofit.
“Our conversations with nonprofits about what worked for them — and what didn't — helped us to clarify our own understanding about this immensely,” she says. “We also spent a fair amount of time with big whiteboards, just pushing things around until they landed in the right place. That's an essential part of this kind of work, in my experience.”
To address these challenges, Betsy, Corey, Justine, and Jamie deployed their Goldman School training.
“Working with fellow GSPP alums is great because we have a common language like the Eightfold Path and similar standards for communication and organization,” says Jamie.
“We were very methodical and very thoughtful,” says Betsy. “We did a survey. We triangulated evidence. We built on the stuff that was out there and built stakeholder maps. We really went out there as analysts.”
“I also appreciate that our team was laser focused on creating a useful toolkit for the field,” says Corey. “We were able to critique one another's ideas with a common goal in mind; that ego-free, intellectually-curious environment is one that GSPP cultivates so well.”
Justine agrees: “We all attended GSPP at different times, but the GSPP style of problem solving runs deeply through all of us.”
The result of their hard work is Making Wise Decisions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Selecting the Right Data System, a toolkit designed to help nonprofits choose the datasystem that best serves their needs.
The toolkit begins with a short quiz that leads to several categories of databases and a “good fit” “possible fit” or “unlikely fit” determination for each one. Participants are then prompted to download the full 80+ page toolkit which will help them develop a understanding of their organization’s needs and goals.
“This toolkit builds on the great advice of several nonprofits, funders, and vendors about what's worked for them, laying out a clear path to success for other groups considering making a data system switch,” says Corey.
The initial response has been even better than anticipated. So far, about 200 people have taken the quiz and downloaded the planning guide.
“The Making Wise Decisions toolkit will help program officers ask better questions and provide more comprehensive advice, making the tool a trusted source of information for both nonprofits seeking to adopt new database systems and foundations that support these efforts,” adds Jamie. “I’ve learned that database vendors were thrilled about the development of the toolkit and want to use it with clients so that clients make good choices, are better equipped to implement a new database, and are happier customers.”
“I'm looking forward to meeting organizations that were able to use the toolkit to find and implement a data system that worked for them,” adds Corey. “Saving money and improving outcomes — that's what this is all about.”