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Using data for program planning

By Samantha Grant

Woman analyzing data on laptop computer
It is critically important for youth workers to use data in their decision making. Too often we listen exclusively to the voices of a handful of vocal members rather than looking deeper into our data. Understanding and using data allows us to inform our program planning, identify our strengths, and learn about outreach. 

Data can feel overwhelming, so here are a couple of ideas to get you started on your data sense-making journey.  

Data can help you understand your community

Use data to learn about your community. Are there youth in your community who aren’t served by your program? Chances are the answer is yes. Learn more about your community by visiting data rich sites. My two favorites are by Minnesota Compass and Kids Count.
  • The Minnesota Compass Build Your Own Profile tool allows you to draw the geographic boundaries of your search, which can be helpful for neighborhood or multi-county projects. Also learn about trends for school aged children - and much more.
  • The Minnesota Kids Count site has fantastic county fact sheets for quick county-wide data points. These sheets are already formatted into an eye catching one page resource. 

Use these data rich sites to ask questions such as:
  • How is the youth population in your area different than your program participant demographics? 
  • What are income and poverty levels in your area?

Data can help you grow your program

Do you have existing data about youth in your program? In 4-H we have an enrollment system with a connected dashboard. Even without a fancy dashboard, you can analyze participation trends for your entire program or maybe for select programs. Pull out your Excel spreadsheets and look at how many youth participated in your programs as well as any demographic or evaluation data on their participation. 

Ask questions such as:
  • What is your current program enrollment? How has enrollment changed over the last 3 - 5 years? 
  • What are top programs or programs that fill to capacity each time you offer them? 

Data can help you learn if and why youth are coming back

Find out if youth are coming back each year. Can you identify participants who were engaged in your program for multiple years? 

Evaluation data can help you learn what entices families to choose your program. What did they like? What did they want more of? I’ve also seen youth programs send specific surveys to families who don’t come back to learn how they can do better. 

Use re-enrollment data to answer these questions:
  • What youth are coming back for a second year? Is there something unique about this group? 
  • What are youth most interested in exploring?

Meet with your program team to put all this information together. As a team you can celebrate your success and reflect on where you see opportunities for growth.

-- Samantha Grant, evaluation director

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

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  1. Thanks Samantha for a great Blog. Data is so often overlooked but it is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle in youth development work. In an environment where YD professionals are competing for grants against other entities, being able to show impact and purposeful programming planning is extremely important. Program evaluation and data analysis needs to be part of the process during the brainstorming, planning, implementation, and re-design process. We all have finite resources and we need to put them where they will have the greatest impact. Thanks again Samantha!

    1. Thanks Josh! You are a cheerleader for the cause. Data matters and is relevant for all the reasons you listed. I love these data rich sites which help take some of the grunt work out of understanding data.

  2. Thanks for this challenge to reflect on the data we have available to this. I enjoy looking at the trends in data and digging through the things we collect. Though I feel we are doing a better job at looking at the data we collect, I think we need to take more time to reflect on what the data is telling us and determine what that means for our practice, outreach, etc. Thanks for these prompts!


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