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Data injection could be a shot in the arm for your program

By Betsy Olson

Even the strongest youth program can stagnate. The initial energy can wane over time, leaving you as a program leader wondering why. Data about your program may offer some insights and solutions for re-energizing.

Demographic data and the population characteristics often drive initial program design and creation. Updating our understanding of these data can help us to reinvigorate a program by showing the continued relevance of the program to the community we serve, or to adjust the program by seeing the changed landscape.

The information age has brought changes to expectations and practice of youth work. One important change has been the amount of data available. Secondary data sources abound and concerns about lack of community information have been replaced by concerns about how to use the copious amounts of it we have. Here are some ways to approach the dearth and abundance of data.

Five ways to use demographic data to rejuvenate your program

  1. Identify ways the community has changed since the program started.

    Minnesota, like many states, is undergoing major demographic shifts. One example is the shift in poverty. Minnesota Compass found that in 2013 children age 0-4 have one of the highest poverty rates in Minnesota. What demographic shifts have impacted the youth you serve?

  2. Strengthen financial support by identifying demographic trends that support your programming efforts.

    The story of your program can not be told with data alone. However, funders are demanding more quantitative data to support their funding decisions. Secondary data sources can reduce your data collection budget and provide evidence for the assertion that your program meets community youth needs.

  3. Put some facts to the trends you are noticing in the youth you serve.

    Maybe you notice that the female high school students in your program seem significantly more stressed than their male counterparts. Should your stress-resolution workshop target young women more than young men? The 2010 Minnesota Student Survey gives county- or school district-level information on stress in 9th and 12th graders, divided by gender.

  4. Identify which parts of the community your program reaches.

    Does your program reach the communities that most need your services? What communities are being missed?

  5. Connect with other communities that may replicate the program.

    How are your community's demographics similar to or different from the next county or the next school district? Frequently, the similarities you find can help you make the case that your program could help in another community as well.
When demographic facts stand alone they are interesting. When we use them to improve programs and make connections between real people and statistics they are powerful. Are you using demographic information to empower your programs? In what ways? What data sources exist in your state?

-- Betsy Olson, Extension educator

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  1. Betsy,
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Your first item really struck me--to think about how demographics have changed recently for the program area we serve. What it said to me was that, even in a strong program with many active volunteers, it is important to involve volunteer leadership in taking a look at current demo. trends. It is easy to get comfortable in the great things we offer, knowing they reach many young people, and not challenge our volunteer leadership or community boards to look at some data and consider what that means! Even just a few key pieces of demo data can be so useful and enticing for a group to look at.
    Thanks for some good jump-starter ideas for our work with groups!

  2. Thank you Anne. I think you are right that demographic changes can challenge our volunteer leadership and community boards. I like the word enticing as a way to describe how demographic data can be used. Demographic information is just a starting point to intrigue and entice our programs toward change and to work past the feeling of being challenged by change toward being open to the possibilities change provides. Any advice on how to work with volunteers to look at challenges and changes as possibilities?

  3. I'm intrigued by point 5. It is important to realize that program success may be dependent on the demographics of where it is successful.
    Creating programs, partnerships and developing volunteers takes a significant amount of time. Looking more intentionally on your demographics, researching effective programs in similar situations and looking to replicate and adapt sounds like an effective strategy.
    Who do you see taking the lead on program replication? Should it be the group that has an effective program in place or the location that has the need?

  4. Great question, Mark! Program replication is a delicate operation. Each program needs to work out leadership on their own. You make a good point that it works best when it involves both the group that initially developed the program and the group that will be replicating the program. The better the collaboration between those two groups the better the end result. Demographic information is just a piece of the puzzle. Hopefully not a forgotten piece. Have you seen program replication work well because of similar demographics or struggle because demographics were not properly understood?

  5. Betsy,
    In my experience program replication works best when the vision is clear, the process of replication seems achievable and (possibly most importantly) there is a passionate local leader that is replicating/adapting the program.
    I believe the demographics matter. I believe that organizations like Extension Youth Development / 4-H have an obligation to attempt program replication whenever possible. I also believe that demographics can be one of our tool that allow us to narrow the potential future locations so we can begin reaching out to local contacts that may see the value of our ideas and how it could impact their community.
    The essence of what I am saying is that demographics are one of the many tools that leaders must effectively use to achieve a larger impact. Would you agree that demographics are one of a community leaders tools?

  6. Hi Mark,
    Yes. Demographics are simply a piece of the puzzle. The goal of using them to achieve a larger impact resonates with me. Because as you also point out looking at demographic information can also make us feel limited and like our options are narrowed. From my perspective looking at the characteristics of our community/program's population can also open up opportunities and be an element of the program planning that encourages us to reach and stretch. How have programs reached out and stretched their boundaries beyond the initial communities served?

  7. Hi Betsy,
    Thanks for this post. What I love most about it is that you are drawing on the wealth of information that is already collected for us in youth programs. If we can find strategic ways to use existing data, it can make our programs stronger- and it also could potentially improve the initial collection tool if the creators know how it's being utilized.
    Too often we are trying to collect surveys and feedback from participants, but if we step back, some of our existing information is very powerful at answering our questions.
    Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. Thank you Sam. Great point. In the long run using existing sources of data can save both time and money in our programs. Checking secondary data sources for relevant information can seem like a hard thing to find time for on the front end. However, just as you say, it has the potential to improve your evaluation tool or eliminate the need to do a survey altogether. When it can do that it really "pays" off.
    Minnesota Public Health Data Access website is one of the resources I have used to find county level data on outcomes that measure well-being. ( Do others have any favorite secondary data resources?


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