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In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

Creative New Jersey: Leaning in to Lean Data

Originally posted on the Geraldine R. Dodge Blog.

I’ve recently been wrestling with questions about collecting data, as do all many of us in nonprofits across our state: What do we need to know and why?  What are we going to do once we know?  How can the data we collect lead to more creative problem-solving, and free us up to be more innovative in the delivery of our service or product?

We all know data collection is important, necessary, and often overwhelming due to stretched resources, time, personnel and technology.  So how do we collect relevant data in a manageable way?  Over the summer I was introduced to a series of free online courses developed and/or curated by +Acumen — an initiative started by the nonprofit venture fund, Acumen, whose investments help companies tackling poverty around the world, to answer just that question. paper

The course I took, Lean Data Approaches to Measure Social Impact, focuses on the philosophy behind collecting and using data efficiently and effectively, and most importantly, only collecting data that will actually help to affect decision-making.  My main takeaways from this course are:

  • Know “why” you are collecting data and only collect the data that will allow you to make decisions about your “why;”
  • Articulate your organization’s top priorities;
  • These top priorities enable you to fully articulate your “customer promise” – i.e. what benefits you say you deliver and to whom you deliver them. (Also known as your “Social Value Proposition”)

Understanding if and how well you are delivering on your customer promise will ultimately influence your ability to creatively problem-solve for the best solutions to your questions.

While the idea of “lean data” or “lean implementation” practices aren’t new, especially to entrepreneurs and social enterprise sectors (see the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s 2015 articles on Lean Experimentation), the first of three modules I completed in this course was incredibly helpful in reframing the way I thought about data collection, particularly as pertains to breaking down assumptions about our “customer promise.”

The first module started with an exercise to debrief past data collection practices, forcing me to think about the “5Ps:”

  • Project (Focus on a project where data collection was implemented.)
  • Purpose (Why were you collecting data?)
  • Past Experiences (What methods were used to collect the data?)
  • Plans to Use Data (What action did the data spur?)
  • Pitfalls (Where did the process fall apart, and what can be learned and improved upon?)

By starting from an analysis of past experiences, I found myself in a much better position to think about my organization’s deliverables – the “customer promise” or “social value proposition.”


The customer promise, according to this course, is not necessarily the same thing as an organization’s mission, though it seems to me that the more closely aligned they are, the better.  The customer promise is designed to articulate the impact you are trying to achieve and which can be measured to determine the success of delivery.

So what kind of data do you need to determine your success?  That depends on asking questions about your customer promise.  The example +Acumen uses is a customer promise for an Indian company, who “provides high quality, reliable ambulance transport to ALL Indian citizens that can save lives.”  The questions to ask include: “Do my customers see my product as high-quality?” or “Are my customer’s lives being saved?”

Once you have identified the questions that will test your customer promise, you can more accurately determine the types of data you need to collect and the approaches you use, such as:

  • Limiting the number of questions you ask to be laser focused on getting answers to specific questions about your customer promise, which eases the burden on your customers and honors the time they spend on answering your surveys;
  • Streamlining the method of delivery — using SMS text surveys that can be delivered right to a customer’s mobile device, for example. +Acumen partners with organizations like com to train you in mobile device survey programming, though the free trial doesn’t allow you to test SMS text surveys;
  • Testing ideas and assumptions with regular feedback from your customers allows for multiple iterations before investing lots of time and money on programs or services that are new.



By “leaning in to lean data,” I am discovering ways to improve our customer promise and our methods of collecting data in ways that engage and honor the people and communities we’re serving.  The lean data method is helping us to innovate and approach problems creatively by giving us a solid base from which to launch better programs and services.

How about you?  What ways are you using data and lean approaches to advance your work in New Jersey?  What are the programs or software you utilize to help you with your data collection?  And how are you using your data to approach questions and challenges creatively?  Let’s get a list going in the comments section as a resource for our New Jersey nonprofit community!

*The term ”customer” can be thought of as clients, patrons, or constituents.

Kacy O'Brien

Kacy O’Brien

Kacy O’Brien is Creative New Jersey’s Program Manager and is a Lead New Jersey’s 2015 Fellow.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

 Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.


“During the process, a wonderful synergy has developed. The weekly Host Team meetings have united our Host Team, and forged new relationships between us all, as well as the businesses and community organizations that we represent. I applaud Gathering Ground for helping communities look at themselves through a process that embraces inclusivity, accountability and openness.”

– Rachael Faillace – Chair, Rahway Call to Collaboration Host Team | Former Executive Director, Rahway Arts District (Rahway)