How An Association Is Using Data To Advocate

The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association is using publicly available data to show the value its members deliver to people throughout the state.

What’s potentially 1,000 times more influential than the internet?

Big data. At least according to Rick Smolan, former journalist and author of The Human Face of Data.

Smolan recently told Associations Now that this era of big data is the first time in history where we are able to have “hyper-perspectives” on topics, as opposed to only seeing things in one direction. “It feels like we’re watching our planet develop a nervous system, and we’ve all become part of that developing brain,” he said.

Like many organizations, associations are rich in data. Successfully taking advantage of that data is not always obvious, though. A recent global study [PDF] from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Iron Mountain found that while 75 percent of business leaders in North America and Europe believe they are fully taking advantage of data, only about 4 percent of them are actually doing so.

Yet, many associations such as the YMCA of Austin have not let that stop them. The group recently began to collect and analyze data in an effort to increase membership as well as to better inform its marketing efforts and understand its audience. The result: It saw a significant jump in year-over-year membership signups. “That’s not to say these new data-driven marketing tactics were the lone cause of that jump, but it was the only thing we did different,” James Finck, president and CEO of the YMCA of Austin, told Associations Now.

In addition to member recruitment and marketing, associations are using data to create better in-person meeting experiences, to identify and locate scientific experts, and to advocate.

The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, for example, is using data to help illustrate the importance of its members—Virginia hospitals and health systems—and the work that they do.

Earlier this year, VHHA developed an online data-based public awareness and advocacy tool called the Community Health Legislative Dashboard. It allows users to pull up population and health statistics that are derived from various sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Virginia Health Department, and to compare the data across legislative districts.

For example, users can view information on local hospital admissions and the number of community physicians, as well as data on adult obesity, smoking rates, and premature deaths in each of Virginia’s 100 House of Delegates and 40 state Senate districts.

“We want the general public to have this tool and to know about the various health indicators in their community—some of them are strong and some leave room for improvement,” Julian Walker, VHHA vice president of communications, told Associations Now.

Walker credited the overall dashboard initiative to VHHA President and CEO Sean Connaughton, who advocated for making use of the data and making it publicly available in a digestible and understandable format.

“His mission is to make sure that we communicate with the public—that we make the electorate, the public—aware of the vital importance of hospitals and health systems in Virginia as well as all of the positive community benefits that they bring to the area and regions and localities that they serve,” Walker said.

The tool is also part of a larger public awareness campaign to inform Virginians and state legislators of the challenges its members are facing in their ability to deliver quality healthcare.

“We know that people value their hospitals and health systems—they count on them in their unexpected moments of need,” Walker said. “What we have also found, and what is unfortunately lost on some folks, is the fact that hospitals face significant and substantial pressures to provide for public health because of federal government mandates and funding cuts and because of state inaction to address some of these challenges that put the real squeeze and financial pressures on hospitals.”

Getting the dashboards up and running was the work of VHHA’s data and research staff. “Our data and research team did the nuts and bolts of actually putting this together,” Walker said. “They gather, analyze, and collate all sorts of reams upon reams of data and spreadsheets, because we want to make sure that when we’re communicating with the public and elected officials, that we are presenting them accurate, vetted, properly evaluated information and research.”

It’s getting that accurate and vetted information out to the public that VHHA hopes will create a foundation of facts that everyone can work from before the association begins more proactive mobilization efforts.

“Once we can establish that base of general knowledge, then we can transition and pivot and say, ‘Ok, now that everyone understands these challenges exist, what are some of the potential ideas and solutions to solving these challenges?’”

Has you association used data as part of its advocacy efforts? Please share in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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