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Guest Blog: Can we listen to the “soft data” in the social change sector?

(image description: a quote from Natasha Krotez)

I am fortunate to know Meena Das. She is a great teacher, friend and connector. Meena continues to move the social change sector towards more equitable and community centric data practices. If you don’t already subscribe to her newsletter, data uncollected, it is a must read, and you can do so here.

In one of our many conversations, we began talking about what I, in lay terms, called “anecdotal” or “soft data” and ways this shows up in organizations and in community work.

I hope to shed some light on this softer type of data, that can get overlooked. As organizations become increasingly data-driven (focused in large part on hard data), and move at an ever-faster pace, we can miss the lessons from soft data. Critically, the information we can learn from soft data must also come from diverse voices, experiences and perspectives. We must ensure our systems for data collection are as equitable as possible.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines soft data as “information about things that are difficult to measure such as people's opinions or feelings”. It is commonly thought that this data should not be solely relied upon, and can be flawed, particularly if hard data is not also considered. Notably, the American Psychological Association includes in their definition that soft data “may be descriptive or qualitative and are used to help interpret hard data.”

Of course, hard data is invaluable: measuring project outcomes and community impact; DEI measurements like staff and board composition and recruitment practices; fundraising data like funds raised, average gift amounts, donor behaviour and donor demographics; and communications metrics such as website views and social media engagement figures.

Many of us in the social change sector love information (aka data) and we love to connect with others. Our sector is inherently social. It brings folks together, to exchange ideas, and to collaborate to advance the missions of organizations and movements. These connection points are opportunities for more learning.

A few places where “soft data” can show up:

  • Donor, partner or staff engagement surveys: often in text comments in the “Other” field, which is typically included as a way to capture additional feedback.

  • Handwritten notes, on direct mail reply devices.

  • Questions or comments from event attendees during a Q&A, or post-event survey.

  • Questions or observations casually asked at the end of meetings, by partners, supporters or volunteers. These may include comments like:

    • Have you ever thought about xxxxx?

    • Why don’t you focus on xxxxx in your work?

    • I’ve been meaning to tell you that xxxxx, but didn’t really know how to bring it up.

At times, we can also sort of sense this data. Folks who choose to work in the social change sector are people with a great deal of empathy. These feelings can arise through engagement with organizations; how we feel when we enter an organization’s work space, how we feel in a virtual meeting, or at an event.

And, we cannot talk about soft data and the places it appears-or goes unsaid-without naming the systemic inequities involved. Do we create enough safety and space around the table for the voices and opinions of equity-deserving groups? So that folks feel they can safely share their ideas, thoughts and experiences? Do we properly center and always prioritize lived/living experience, when we develop strategies, projects, communications materials and events?

It can be challenging to collect, evaluate and consider “soft data” through surveys, and from written and verbal feedback from an organization’s constituency and from others in the community. We can rise to this challenge. When we do so, we can work to dismantle inequities in data collection. We can create more methods for equity-deserving groups to share experiences and input, think differently about ways we gather feedback, and build in time for thoughtful discussion on ways we can continually ensure all are included.

While anecdotal data may seem quieter, especially around issues relating to equity, perhaps we just need to listen differently? I think there is a shift in this direction; one I am hopeful that we can continue to move towards.

I believe in hard data and what it tells us. Yet, when we champion data-driven approaches, let’s be holistic in what that means. And, before we complete one project and rush on to the next, let’s slow down. Let’s debrief in our teams, invite community feedback, and reflect on what else we may have to learn from supporters, staff, partners and community members through the softer ways they have communicated with us.

We as a sector, can listen more deeply to ensure that the “soft data” is also captured, attended to, and integrated in our programs and practices.

We can ask ourselves as individuals, organizations and as a sector:

  • Are we moving too quickly to fully consider all the data that is available to us?

  • Can we create more methods for collecting and integrating thoughts and input from equity-deserving groups?

  • Can we embed “listening time” into our meetings, for dialogue on some of the nuanced messages the “soft data” may be trying to tell us?

Natasha (Tash) Krotez, CFRE (she/her)

Natasha believes that philanthropy can help create systemic change. She has 20 years of progressive experience at equity and health organizations including the BCCDC Foundation for Public Health, YWCA Metro Vancouver, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and West Coast LEAF. She is a Certified Fundraising Executive and has an Associate Certificate in Fundraising Management from BCIT. Committed to social justice and equity, diversity and inclusion, she volunteers with the Association of Fundraising Professionals Vancouver Chapter as a mentor and

longstanding member of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) committee.

Natasha is grateful to live with her wife and daughter on the unceded traditional territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

To connect with her or learn more about collaborating with Indovinare Consulting, reach out:


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