Using Data to Tell Your Story

 In Advocacy, Fundraising

If your library is using or investigating Orangeboy, Analytics on Demand, or one of the other data mining services entering the industry, you know that data-based decisions are here to stay. If it was ever true, funders, whether they be individuals, foundations or politicians, will no longer give their funds without expecting concrete examples of how you are making change.

As libraries, traditionally we have focused on data that is easily collected such as gate counts, circulation statistics, or program attendance. Year over year, this can inform people of trends, but it barely indicates the real story of how libraries change lives. As visits and circulation ebb with the economy, the proliferation of e-content, and the decreased attention span of the average resident, this data is actually hurting the library’s perceived value.  Some of us have pursued the opportunities to survey our users – either as they log off a computer, finish a class, or leave an event. While not statistically significant, these responses not only provide useful information to us in planning future services, but show our funders that as an industry, we understand that the time has passed where, “people attended” is enough to say our offering achieved its goals.

We must embrace speaking about goals and impact, without breaching the confidentiality compact at the heart of library service. We must stretch to use the data we have to imply, if not prove, the impact we are having. This is not difficult, but will sometimes require an extra level of research.

Which of the following is more compelling to you?

“The Summer Reading Program, in its 50th year, had 10,000 participants.”

“The Summer Reading Program engaged our community’s youth in reading and attending library events over 100,000 hours between June and August 2015.”

The second statement paints a picture of a child at the library, or reading a book.  Literally almost everyone in the U.S. finds this a positive image. In the first statement, the focus is on the library program, in the second, it is on the impact. The second sentence gives a lot more information, but required no real additional research or data collection.

In this example, I assumed that in order to participate in the Summer Reading Program, you have to read a certain amount of time to “count.” Perhaps your library tracks the number of books read – would you feel comfortable saying that all of those books together averaged 15 minutes each to read? This kind of extrapolation is very reasonable.

Simple surveys are a very compelling way to provide impact information. The statement that “95% of program attendees indicated they would recommend the program to a friend” indicates value even more than the “program is consistently rated 5 out 5.” Different and important information about who is served by a homework program is shown by students who indicate they use the program “once per week or less” vs. “three times per week” vs. “every day it is available.” Particularly as it relates to arts or cultural programs, we find it very important to learn whether those people also go to museums, concert halls, etc. or whether the library is in fact their only access to arts in your community.

With skills and training classes, it is important to be realistic about the impact you can have. Instead of indicating that the Excel basics class you offered helped someone get a job, ask the person at the end of the class, “are you more confident in your skills?” and “do you know how to communicate what you have just learned?” These are actual steps to job success.

Finally, don’t forget that sometimes you will have to show that the impacts you can influence are part of a very real larger picture. Use national thought leader studies, and state level learning recommendations, to validate the actions and activities you support.

Libraries make a huge difference, which you know. Don’t be shy about using both specific examples and data to prove it to others.

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