The pandemic has shifted how (and why) organizations collect data. These non-profit leaders will tell you exactly how.

Some non-profit organizations are expanding their efforts to capture more data on their clientele to ensure their needs are being met holistically.

Why It Matters

As the coronavirus puts pressure on non-profits to respond to a demand in services, many who work in the sector believe changing what data they gather from clients will enable them to provide better services and ensure that some of the most vulnerable are supported during the pandemic.

This story is in partnership with Innoweave. 

During the pandemic, when most non-profit organizations were overwhelmed responding to unprecedented demand for services, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Toronto had the opposite challenge.

The organization offers a range of community services to support women and non-binary people who are criminalized as well as advocates for justice and equity in the legal system. During the pandemic, it has experienced a sharp decline in clients, who come through referral services linked to the provincial court system. 

Deborah Riddle, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Toronto says that because the court system has been “erratic” during lockdowns, which has led to delayed hearings, the organization has seen a decline in referrals leading to fewer participants in their programs. 

When the coronavirus hit, one of the organization’s programs, which supports women in the judicial system who battle addictions, suddenly had no clients. Another program saw a decline from its usual 400 clients to 87 clients due to backlogs in the legal system which prevented referrals.


A need to track additional data 

However, although the organization’s clientele has reduced, Riddle says their impact “is the same, if not more.”

Staff at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Toronto began to increase their communication with clients and note additional data in client files.

“We were asking some additional questions and tracking that and making sure that if a client was asking a question, we weren’t just telling them to call a number — we were making sure we had an individual who was helping them,” Riddle says. 

During the pandemic, the organization’s staff didn’t provide referrals the way they typically would — but went the extra mile to make sure their clients were connected with support. For example, staff members checked in with their clients to ask if they filed their taxes, since they would likely be eligible for a refund. If the client answered no, the staff member would connect them to a community organization to help file their taxes virtually. 

Staff members also asked clients about their food intake, to ensure they had access to adequate and appropriate food. When they found out that many of their clients could only afford junk food during the lockdowns, staff were able to connect them to food banks to access healthy food. 

The most pressing issue, however, Riddle says, has been the pandemic’s impact on clients’ mental health.  According to Riddle, people were “feeling completely under stress, helpless, confused, and didn’t know where to go.” In response, the organization would refer their clients to psychologists or psychotherapists which helped “fast track” them despite lengthy wait times for mental health support during the pandemic. 

While Riddle says the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Toronto reached fewer clients than they typically would have, she believes they were able to serve these clients in a more holistic way, ensuring that no one fell through the cracks. 


Tackling service gaps and misinformation 

Riddle says clients responded well to the more frequent check-ins by organization staff, and that while video calls were an option, many clients were hesitant to appear on-camera and preferred to connect over phone calls instead. Although the organization has detailed case files on their clients, including their case history or criminal history, phone calls helped bring a sense of anonymity to clients, who were “more likely to share information and be more up-front with the issues they’re facing,” says Riddle. 

At the same time, she says the pandemic created some limitations and a gap in services. Typically, when the organization’s clients experienced severe mental health issues, staff would be able to take them to the hospital and be physically present to advocate for them in a hospital setting. During the pandemic, this was no longer possible, and staff were limited to providing virtual support in such circumstances.

As a result, the team at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Toronto began asking clients questions about their mental health and drug use during the pandemic. They tracked this information in individual case files, as well as discussing these patterns during team meetings to explore how to address them. This led the organization to introduce an addictions program to help clients manage their usage.

A few months ago, in a standard check-in with a client, who is employed at a long-term care home, Riddle asked the client if she had received her COVID-19 vaccination yet. 

To her surprise, the woman told her she refused to get the vaccine because she saw on Fox News that those who receive the vaccine will turn into zombies. (A myth that connected the COVID-19 vaccines to zombies originated through social media and included clips from news reports taken out of context, including Fox News. This did not originate on Fox News, although the media outlet has been responsible for other false claims regarding the coronavirus.)

After that conversation, Riddle and her team began asking their clients where they were getting their news, particularly when it came to COVID-19 and the vaccine roll-out. 

“Whether you’re an adult or youth, the majority of [our clients] do not listen to Global News or CTV or CBC. They read Reddit, they go to left-wing news sites, they’re listening to Fox,” Riddle says. “It’s all these online platforms that come on their feeds — Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat… I would say they’re not connected with reliable sources.”

The responses made Riddle realize it was something the organization’s staff should discuss more often with clients during their regular virtual check-ins. 


How flexible funding enables staff to provide holistic support 

As the team at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Toronto captures additional data to better serve their clients, they have needed stable long-term funding in order to ensure the organization can sustainably continue this work in the coming years. 

During the pandemic, the organization received a nearly $100,000 grant from United Way of Halton and Hamilton. The grant, to be disbursed over five years from 2020 to 2025, has been more flexible than the majority of funding the organization typically receives, according to Riddle.

Some item lines in the budget, such as travel, were not applicable in 2020. However, the organization was able to move the funding to other areas where it was needed, such as providing their clients with gift cards for grocery stores or covering the cost of Uber rides. 

Riddle says since the majority of the organization’s clients are on social services or assistance, they were unable to afford additional clearing supplies, personal protective equipment, and other essentials which were in high demand particularly at the start of the pandemic. 

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Toronto bought a stockpile of supplies to distribute to clients, in addition to ordering some items online and having them delivered to clients’ homes. 

“The flexibility that United Way of Halton and Hamilton was able to provide us with gave us the ability not to be fearful,” she says. “We had flexibility not to worry about it because there was such ease that you [should] do what you need to be able to support your clients. It wasn’t going back and forth: ‘Can we move this $500 or $1000?’”

She says that trust was not only a “big confidence builder” but also made work more seamless for her team, who typically checks in with their funders, to ensure they don’t exceed their budget. 

Ultimately, this flexible funding — which is key during a pandemic — also enables organizations to plan for the long-term, Riddle says. 

“You’re always trying to function within the year and think: Will we get funding for next year? Did we meet the targets?” Riddle says. “It allows you to be able to look at things larger than year to year.”

Increased flexibility with impact measurement

Similarly, in the early days of the pandemic, the team at United Way of Halton and Hamilton (UWHH) was considering how organizations’ ability to measure their impact and reach certain targets would be impacted by lockdowns.

“We quickly realized that programs were being totally shifted, programs were going into flux,  some programs closed down initially. A lot of organizations had questions, saying: ‘We can’t deliver the programs that we were initially funded for, so what does that mean?’” said Vivien Underdown, senior manager of strategic initiative and capacity building.

It wasn’t long before the UWHH decided to extend flexibility to their grantees by maintaining their funding, despite their ability to continue their programming in the same way or measure their impact. 

“Our priority was stabilization. We knew the sector would be rocked and just because people couldn’t run programs for a couple of months or longer, it doesn’t mean they weren’t needed,” Underdown says.

However, due to requirements from donors, organizations were still required to submit reports about their work, but Underdown says they were high-level updates on whether programs were running, and if so, what type of impact they were seeing. 

While the UWHH has a list of indicators that organizations should report on regarding their outcomes, such as the number of clients they supported, there is also some flexibility where organizations can select “other” when reporting their own impact metrics. 

Underdown  says this flexibility of allowing organizations to list their own indicators to show their impact helps foster innovation, which UWCC priorities. “You can’t necessarily predict the outcomes in innovation — they’re subject to shifting,” Underdown says.


Pandemic reveals need for flexible reporting requirements 

During the first several months of the coronavirus pandemic, Vanessa Parlette, a senior associate with Social Impact Advisors, says that most non-profits were “reeling” to adjust to increased demands. 

“[There was] a lot of pressure on resources, and being able to free up the time to do the work was a challenge,” Parlette says. “I think [the pandemic] really emphasized across the board the importance of having important timely and accurate data.”

However, during lockdowns, gathering that data wasn’t always possible. 

“The way that they would normally service their clients [was] overturned and so some of that in-person data collection and observation [is] impossible to do or the nature of the service has changed, so the ways of going about and getting that data has been harder.” 

According to Parlette, the radical shifts in how non-profits deliver services and programs during the pandemic may mean that some of the previously determined indicators to measure their impact are no longer relevant. 

Through Innoweave, Parlette led cohort-style coaching sessions with three organizations, including the UWHH, to support them in building a measurement framework to ensure that organizations would be able to measure their impact and how it aligns with their strategic goals. 

Among the cohort’s learnings were that they would need to step away from what Parlette says are traditional indicators of success if they are to focus on making systemic changes in their communities, which requires organizations to have more adaptive learning by creating these indicators while they run their programming, rather than in advance.

Parlette’s support helped UWHH shape their ROOT Investment stream, which creates a system of trust-based philanthropy, allowing recipient organizations to make their own funding decisions rather than prescribing to rigid funder requirements. 

“United Way was really interested in: [Firstly], what does it take to support agencies in this way, to build this culture of trust based philanthropy and then secondly, how do we do this well [to not] impose a heavy burden on organizations to follow our prescriptive approach?”

Parlette says other funders have moved in this “direction [of] being able to trust organizations that they know their communities best and what it would take to address the needs they’re seeing,” and that the pandemic has accelerated this. 

“We all enter into this work because we’re trying to make lives better for people and that often leads to having really ambitious changes that we want to see in the communities that we work with,” she says. “[Measuring impact] is so important for better understanding our communities in terms of how to best serve them.”