New Roles for Association Pros
Business and Analytics

Running the Numbers

In this article:
Kelly McKenna understands how powerful data gathering can be for an association. That’s why she takes her time doing it.

A few years before the pandemic, Kelly McKenna got a clear sense of how powerful well-managed data can be. She was working at an Illinois nonprofit that was trying to efficiently coordinate immunization efforts. But easily accessible data could often be years out of date, or included statewide averages that made it hard to identify areas that needed the most help.

With some digging, though, McKenna found some more granular school-level data that made for better planning around childhood immunizations. “That way, we were able to identify areas where immunization rates were troublingly low, where if you had an outbreak, that school was pretty likely to have some significant challenges,” she said. “Then we were able to direct our various limited resources for programming and education in communities that needed more support.”

Now, as analytics manager at the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM), she’s doing much the same work: Generating and identifying the most meaningful and accurate data to serve members. But the challenge of the job involves more than just plugging in information and spitting out charts.

In some ways, her job is essential to an association’s sense of itself: What does an organization need to know about itself? What information does it need to go there? And how do you get members to share it?

Starting From Scratch

The analytics manager position was created for McKenna in October 2021. “[AAHPM] wanted to get a better understanding of who their members were,” she said.

McKenna began her tenure by convening a staff-led task force to study not just what information AAHPM was gathering but also how it was inputted and what questions might be missing. For instance, AAHPM was looking to know more about members who participated in its scholarship programs.

“We want to be able to track and identify them throughout their engagement with the Academy, and right now that’s not being done in our management system,” she said. “They’re involved in our leadership-development or research-development programs, so they have a lot to offer for the association.”

“You want to make sure you’re framing questions correctly and making sure you’re pulling the right information together.”—Kelly McKenna, AAHPM
Business and Analytics

But every decision to collect data is informed by a cross-functional discussion about what information to gather and how. The task force is sifting through all data elements relating to members with a mindset to determine what to keep, edit, or remove. When it comes to adding new data elements, it deliberates over what to include in the AMS and what might be more appropriate to ask in a survey. And if it’s sensitive information—such as around DEI, another focus of McKenna’s—the association must consider members’ comfort level.

“You want to make sure you’re framing questions correctly and making sure you’re pulling the right information together, but you’re also making sure that you’re building trustworthy relationships,” she said. “We could add new data elements to our AMS if we want to collect new information about our members. But if we haven’t built that trust in those relationships, they’re not going to provide that information to us.”

Slow and Steady

Such a process requires patience. AAHPM uses a data-gathering framework adapted from Google, and its first two phases emphasize identifying the problems it wants to solve and the sources needed to address them. Taking the time to get those first two steps right, McKenna says, is crucial to keep organizations from getting off-track later.

“You want to spend a lot of time in that initial ‘ask’ phase to make sure that you’re clearly defining the questions you’re trying to answer,” she said. “It may seem like you’re going slow, but if you can set that intentionality up front, you can set yourself up for success later on.”

That’s critical, she says, because any successful data strategy needs to keep an association from acting from a biased perspective.

“A lot of times we think of data as being the absolute truth: You see something, and it’s presented in a graph or as a number, we think of that as being true,” she said. “But there can be a lot of bias in the way that data is collected and has been collected historically. There are some historically marginalized communities that maybe weren’t included, or the way that the information was asked was not necessarily the best way to get the data. There always needs to be a focus on making sure that you’re looking at data through a lens of whether you’re creating or reinforcing bias.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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