Needs, Stories and Impact: Using Data to Drive Change


I love data. Data can explain what’s going on around us, tell a story, offer straightforward facts in a time when they seem hard to come by. It can make or break arguments, impact decision-making, establish a need. It can also be skewed, manipulated, or improperly attributed. Data’s a fickle beast, but when utilized thoughtfully it can change the course of our whole world. If you’re familiar with SBC, then you’re well aware that we cover a wide breadth of work across an evenRegionalData wider (or, I should say, longer) region through a mission driven by the triple bottom line. Thoughtfully utilizing data, that fickle beast, is how SBC tackles our own brute of aspirations to foster more resilient communities, a healthier environment, and a prospering economy throughout the Sierra Nevada. Data allows us to narrow our focus, finding where the needs are greatest, the solutions innovative yet practical, and the impact scalable. It gives the region a narrative, and makes the impact of our efforts tangible to our network. From programmatic vision to the final report, data is a huge part of how SBC gets the good work done.

A program often starts with regional data. SBC looks at socio-economic data, natural resource data, demographic data (I wouldn’t recommend making a drinking game out of the use of the word “data” in this piece), etc., from across the region to determine where needs are the highest. The needs we dive into include workforce development, job growth, natural resource health, poverty rates, broadband access and more in order to get a clear picture of the different segments of our vast region. This determination requires quite a bit of data from multiple sources in order to secure confidence in our findings.

While embarking on this process, we also consider whether a solution could be modeled in a place where the need is the highest. Moving the needle can get a little squirrely here, often the communities that have the highest needs aren’t necessarily the communities jumping at the chance to try a potentially cutting-edge solution. We get strategic; find innovative entities where the solution to the high-need entities can be modeled, using data, and share the newly developed baseline data to convince the jurisdiction, landowner, or business owner that improving their triple bottom line can also meet the needs of their single bottom line.

Aside from identifying needs internally, data also helps us tell a story. The example that immediately comes to mind is the story told by looking at the state of resource funding allocated to the Sierra via California’s recent water bonds. The Sierra Nevada provides roughly 65% of California’s developed water, yet historically has received only about 1% of water bond funding. This makes for a compelling story for a number of reasons: urban downstream users rely on our upper watershed for their water, funding for watershed management would reduce our risk of catastrophic wildfires, protecting our outdoor recreation industry makes good economic sense – there are all sorts of ways to expand on the story, but those initial figures pack a punch all on their own. It’s a story SBC has been sharing with our partners, expressing to lawmakers and lobbyists, discussing with our community members, and we’re thrilled to say the story has had an impact. In 2018 we have not one, but two bond measures on the June and November ballots that, if approved, would provide $492 million to the region, 10 times more than the Sierra has ever received (stay tuned for much more on these bonds). How’s that for data!

SBDC ImpactStatementData 2017

Perhaps most invaluably, data determines whether SBC’s completed work has made an impact or not. As a nonprofit dedicated to our mission and reliant on contracts, grants and donors, we better have made an impact! The figure on the right, a selection from our Sierra Small Business Development Center’s 2017 Impact Statement, brings the efforts of that program’s past year to light. To us, this extension of storytelling is the most endearing part of data. As each program progresses the impact comes to life. The data becomes more than numbers; that client served, that job retained, that dream realized, it’s tangible. It’s magical. I love data.

We may not yet have found the silver bullet elevator speech that allows our network to quickly grasp all the work that SBC does in the region, but through the thoughtful utilization of data we are making a difference. SBC identifies the needs, considers the nuances, identifies opportunities, and measures our impact all using data. It’s not unique, but perhaps this is: SBC is working to improve the communities, economy, and environment of this incredible region, and we have the data to prove it.



Map courtesy the Center for Economic Development