Data Is Not a Magic Bullet, But..."

Tuesday, March 30

"Data is not a magic bullet, but..."

In continuation of the RGK Center’s 20th Anniversary virtual celebrations, the Center hosted an intimate conversation with Dr. Francie Ostrower in late March. A senior fellow at the RGK Center, Dr. Ostrower is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and College of Fine Arts and the director of the Portfolio Program in Arts and Cultural Management and Entrepreneurship. She shared findings from Data and Deliberation, a recent report from her independent evaluation of the audience-building efforts of a range of performing arts organizationswho participated in The Wallace Foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative. The report explores how organizations used data and market research to engage and retain audiences. Dr. Ostrower’s report found that while data on its own cannot solve problems or dictate the best course of action, engagement with data provided value as part of an iterative, reflective process. Fruitful use of data was promoted by an initial mission-driven purpose and understanding of what the organization aims to achieve with the data, an openness to unanticipated insights, a readiness to acknowledge findings in productive rather than punitive way, and a willingness to engage with and continually learn from the data. Meaningful engagement with data provides an opportunity for nonprofits to both better understand their external constituencies and build self-awareness. Read a full briefing on Dr. Ostrower’s findings and download the report here.

Following Dr. Ostrower’s presentation, event attendees shared stories of their own experiences engaging with data. The conversation highlighted some of the barriers to an impactful use of data, including the mismatched timeframes of data generation and day-to-day decision-making, punitive measures for undesirable data outcomes, and a lack of interest in program improvement from leadership. As one attendee noted, even the most robust data management software will be ineffective without the space and capacity to reflect on and engage with the data in a process of strategic learning. Attendees also discussed how multiple ways of knowing contribute to program improvement, including the role of qualitative, in addition to quantitative, data. The conversation emphasized how all organizations, including even large nonprofits and state agencies, are grappling with the challenge of effectively using data. Attendees also shared resources for further data engagement learning, including the documentary Failing Forward: On the Road to Social Impact, as well as the virtual learning series Unraveling the Mystery of Texas Early Childhood Data, created through the partnership of United Ways of Texas and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The event concluded with a brief overview of the CONNECT program, which matches nonprofit organizations with graduate students to solve real-world data projects. Hear about the experiences of participating local nonprofits and students in this video.


Francie Ostrower, Ph.D., Professor of Public Affairs and Fine Arts, Senior Fellow

Francie Ostrower is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and College of Fine Arts, Director of the Portfolio Program in Arts and Cultural Management and Entrepreneurship jointly sponsored by the College of Fine Arts and the LBJ School, and a senior fellow in the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service. She is principal investigator of the Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative: Research and Evaluation, a six-year study of audience-building activities by performing arts organizations commissioned and funded by The Wallace Foundation through a multi-million dollar grant. Prior to joining The University of Texas at Austin in 2008, she was a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and prior to that a sociology faculty member at Harvard University. Dr. Ostrower has been a visiting professor at IAE de Paris/Sorbonne Graduate Business School and is an Urban Institute affiliated scholar. She has authored numerous publications on philanthropy, nonprofit governance, and arts and cultural participation that have received awards from the Association for Research on Nonprofit and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) and Independent Sector. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Aspen Institute, among others. Recent professional activities include serving as a board member and president of ARNOVA and on the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly board, and the academic advisory committee of Stanford Social Innovation Review.