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Opinion: Why We Must Collaborate on Our Insights to Help the Country’s Most Vulnerable

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Opinion

Just one month ago, the Australia Bureau of Statistics recorded the highest yearly jump in the cost of living on record. It’s no surprise that people are feeling the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis, nor that those most disproportionately affected are Australians who are already impacted by deep disadvantage.  

How do we know this? Through data – but as it currently stands, we can be using this vital information more efficiently – and in more collaborative ways – to solve some of our most complex social justice issues.  

We see some significant challenges in building data capabilities of the non-profit sector in Australia, but not ones that are impossible to overcome. Data technologies have become easier to use and cheaper, but we also see growing data complexity, organisational cost pressures, increasing service complexities and disjointed funding reporting requirements.  

Many of Australia’s for-impact experts, organisations and projects often exist and work in siloes, where data, insights and expertise are often separated. To create a greater impact, it’s time to bring data professionals across the sector together to share insights, approaches, stories and innovations.  

Instead of working in such separate capacities, we have a new chance post-pandemic to better combine our resources and generate stronger solutions. Across the non-profit sector, government and business, we can uncover new ways to identify where we might have gaps in our understanding of data and learn new ways for organisations and non-profits to collaborate. 

Using Data for the Greater Good  

So how can we use data for good and why is embedding the collection and effective use of data important for non-profits? The short answer is that is allows us to better help those experiencing disadvantage across Australia, particularly as the cost-of-living crisis adds pressure on those already doing it tough.  

Understandably, the CEO of a technology not-for-profit is spruiking the benefits of data – however, data could be a key driver of success in this challenging climate for NFPs.  

For example, we saw Mission Australia recently undergo a ‘data transformation’ where they centred the ways they do their work around data collection, insights and implementation. The approach has helped their clients who often experience homelessness, have substance issues, disabilities, or mental health issues.  

Through a ‘typical service journey’ data approach, the organisation has been able to identify how many times – and when – a person reaches out to them, as well as when they “drop off”. Collecting this information allows them to improve their impact because they can understand the critical points where there is an increased risk of service disengagement and can provide more intensive strategies for this period to re-engage those experiencing disadvantage.  

Mission Australia have also used a range of new datasets and equations to estimate the percentage of clients who will exit homelessness depending on how long they use the service, as well as how much ‘brokerage’ they receive, also known as the funding provided to help someone sustain a lease, access a bond, or purchase new furniture.  

Improving Data Methods Does Not Need to Be Expensive  

Undergoing a revision of how a not-for-profit works with data to generate stronger outcomes needn’t be expensive nor labour-intensive. When Mission Australia found that young people exiting a metro youth homelessness service left with as much anxiety about their future security as when they initially engaged, the organisation knew they had to change something.  

This insight would not have been identified if it wasn’t for data collection through a very basic digital outcomes survey completed by young people at risk. In response, Mission Australia created and provided young people with ‘exit packs’ full of resources and important numbers, such as services, agencies and support lines for once the young person exited Mission Australia’s accommodation. A year after this action, the young people’s confidence in their future security had increased. 

Sometimes data collection isn’t used to fix anything; it might be used to show how satisfied an organisation’s clients are, and therefore, why it deserves funding to continue its important work. 

Such is their passion for using data to drive outcomes, Mission Australia’s dedicated Centre for Evidence & Insights comes together every 12 months to unpack data insights and make goals and strategise for the next year.  

It goes without saying that for many not-for-profits and service delivery organisations, having someone – much less, a team – dedicated to trawling through data is not financially feasible.  

However, there are ways we can build a culture of data collection into our everyday practice to create efficiencies, improve the way we operate and reflect on our outputs. Better outcomes will likely lead to more funding, so evaluation is key.

We’re Already Witnessing a Change in Our Collaborative Approach  

A key example of data collaboration to keep an eye out for is the Paul Ramsay Foundation supported ‘Data Catalyst Network’: a cross-sector collaboration to strengthen the data capabilities of the not-for-profit sector and generate new insights to better disrupt disadvantage cycles.  

So far, the network has the participation of major organisations, government institutions and academics – including The Smith Family, the South Australian Government, the University of Melbourne and many more.  

Recognising the unique challenges the not-for-profit sector faces, we recognise that we can bring together professionals from community organisations, government, academia, and business to combine data access and capabilities to catalyse social change.  

This is important, as we’re stronger when we work together. We are already seeing a shift in the sector’s strengthening of our data systems, and look forward to witnessing more improved outcomes for the people who need it most right now. 

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David Spriggs is CEO of Infoxchange; an organisation that makes and manages technology for social justice. He is passionate about creating a more digitally inclusive society and the role technology can play in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the not-for-profit sector. David is also chair of the Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance and a board member of Specialisterne Australia.

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