Any conversation with Constance Miller involves the masterful weaving of beautiful metaphor, engaging storytelling, and impactful data. Constance’s rare mix of poetic intuition and research experience makes her uniquely qualified to share important insight about the role nonprofits have on their communities around the country. You have heard bits of this in the QuantCorner from previous episodes, but in this episode we focus in on the incredible depth of Constance’s knowledge.
Episode 3, “When the World Changes, Our Questions Change” features Constance’s thoughts on:
- Stabilizing Trends. A year ago when the pandemic began, data and insights shifted hourly or daily. Now, the industry is seeing more stability, giving hope for continued healing in organizations and communities as we move forward.
- Pivoting on a Dime. Even with data constantly shifting early in the pandemic, one constant was the ability for nonprofit organizations to meet the ever-changing needs of their communities. This was reflected in rising donations, emergency childcare for essential workers, outreach to seniors, virtual check-ins, and so much more.
- Data or Insight? Learn the important distinction between data and insight. Together, these numbers—and the stories they tell—enrich the impact of nonprofits and provide proof points on what communities need.
This interview was recorded March 4, 2021.
Saranda West: Hello, Accelerant world. Do you know those moments where you sit down with a friend, you start talking without a plan or you have a plan going in, but it goes in a completely different direction? Then you leave the chat with healing that you didn't know you needed. That's this episode for me.
If you've listened to prior interviews, you've heard Constance talk about different data insights as a part of those episodes. However, today I get to talk with just her. It's a conversation about reflecting on the past year and ultimately realizing that the ingredients of the data we have seen from the pandemic now have more meaning and much deeper insights.
I think it mostly speaks for itself. Here's Constance.
Constance Miller: When you talk about how isolated people are feeling or what they've sat with for a year on what they need in terms of connection. That, and the role that Ys are playing in that… I can't, there's not, I mean... All of the things I can say sound like throwing out platitudes that you can't overstate.
It's what everybody needs. I think, honestly, after that hit me so badly, I just got better. I'm to the point where it's overwhelming, the work that has been done in the Y movement and is happening right now.
SW: Accelerant: a substance use to aid the spread of fire. Accelerating or causing acceleration.
This is the Accelerant podcast.
Hi there. Thank you for joining me today on the Accelerant. I'm your host, Saranda West. I hope you're going for a walk or a quick run, because our guest today is going to make you want to get up and move. Constance Miller is the Director of Research, Analytics and Strategic Insights at Daxko.
Before you say, “Oh, a Daxko person. I’m just going to turn this one off,” hang tight. Constance also worked at YMCA of the USA for six years in the research department. She's very much a part of the YMCA movement. She has so much energy, insights, or data for any conversation, the best analogies. Constance, welcome to the show.
CM: Thank you.
SW: First off, so little bit of an intro there, Constance, but just tell us a little bit about yourself.
CM: Yes. I will try to start in a logical place for the conversation. I have moved around a lot. My background is in research. If you had asked me what I wanted to be in fifth grade, I would have said some combination between an astronaut, an opera singer and an academic.
I tried at some point to dabble on each of those, but what ended up happening is that I went into public policy, which included a lot of statistics. And I fell in love with being able to take information and explain it to other people. My background reflects that. Prior to being at Daxko, I had two different positions with the federal government.
Then, when I held the second one, I actually was recruited to YUSA by a good friend of mine at the time. I spent six years there, as you said, in the research department. Then, fell in love with the Y, I have a Y story. I learned to swim at the Y when I was in elementary school in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the B.R. Ryall Y, it's still there.
Honestly, when I look at the thread of my background, it is always been, “How can we take something that needs to be communicated and do it in a way that's convincing and do it in a way that is insightful and meaningful?” Data plays a huge role in that. It is one of many paths to do that.
When I was able to combine that with a topic that I loved, that has guided my decisions in terms of where we've moved in terms of where we've worked and the work that I'm doing now.
SW: Perfect. I love your Y story and that you can say, “It's still there.”
So, help me understand. When you say, “I worked at YUSA in the research department,” what does that look like? What was the day-to-day in research?
The Day-to-Day in Research
CM: That's a great question. We had a fantastic team and it was really tight. When I first started there and when I ended, I would say there were probably about two phases of the work.
When I first joined the team, we were collecting a lot of information and I used to make a joke when I transitioned to Daxko and I would introduce myself and they'd say, “Hey, where are you coming from?” I used to make a joke to folks, if it was someone from the Y, because I said “If YUSA had asked you for something during these years, and it wasn't the annual report, I'm so sorry. It was me.”
We would go in and do surveys. Everyone who works at a Y is very familiar with the annual reporting process. There was a lot of information that was gathered, and it was gathered for such great reasons.
That was phase one of my work, which was understanding what information was needed from which YMCAs and when so that we could communicate about messaging, so that we could get a version of references for other Ys who would call in and say, “Hey, do we know who's doing X?” And certainly also, of course, fundraising.
So, for both information for local Ys to leverage, if they were working with a funder that's everywhere, like United Way, or for YUSA itself, to be able to speak in more real-time than the annual report would allow around efforts that were for collecting a lot of survey data and feedback data around camp, because we were doing a foundation pitch to fund camp that would have been a pass-through grant for the Ys.
That was phase one of the work. Day-to-day, that meant that we did a lot of strategy around what really needed to be collected, what was most important, because we knew we couldn't ask everything all the time. There an endless list of things that I know we could, even in our roles right now, Saranda, want to know about what's going on at Ys.
Prioritizing against that. Scrubbing within an inch of its life, the best way for us to go do that so that when we got back the information, it was usable, it was crisp. It was a quick turnaround. Then analyzing that and putting that back out the door. The second phase of work that I did was very much connected around... I was there during the rebrand.
I was at Y USA for most of Neil Nicoll's tenure.
SW: Yes! I remember the rebrand so well.
A Number and a Story
CM: Yes! And there was a lot that came out of that around who we are. When I say we, I still include myself in the Y movement, but like who we are and what we stand for. That's where healthy living and social responsibility came in and all of those pieces that were more than the way the Y was always talked about.
Then, and here's my favorite part, the research that went behind all of that. When we talk about the impact that the Y has, that's where I transitioned very much from, “What information do we need to go tell the story we need to tell right now?" to, “What impact is the Y really having, and what's common across all Ys?”
How do we go speak about that? What information do we need to gather so that we've got really big proof points? This is where things like achievement and belonging and relationships and developmental assets and us having some numbers to back up our brand in that sense, and our identity in that way. That was really the second phase of my work.
I got to manage a team that was grant funded to do that. I still remember, because I think again, I'm going to show my age a little bit, but not that long ago, things were still delivered in big binders. I remember walking into a meeting with Y leaders and there was the thud factor where everyone got one of the biggest green binders you've ever seen with all of the findings that we had from it, because there was just so much rich information to use that came out of that work.
A lot of what you still hear, it's still being used when we talk about the impact. It's being leveraged by YUSA still and in several Ys.
I know that we're on a podcast and you can't see me, but I'm smiling talking about it because it was a direct way to add to the way that the Y has always talked about itself.
We have these wonderful personal stories. How can we, in addition to telling those, add in... And we used to talk about it in the research department, it's not “and/or.” It’s not, “Is it a number or a story?” It's a number and a story, or the numbers backing up the story.
How can we enrich the impact that the Y is having with proof points around its reach and around its impact?
SW: Yeah, that's fantastic. You should be proud and happy because you can absolutely still see that work today. I'm sure if you had the binder, it would still be just as relevant.
CM: The binder is still at Y USA somewhere, I swear. Someone's got it.
SW: Oh yeah. We'll go ask.
Speaking of the Y impact, we are early in 2021. How have you seen the impact of YMCAs change over the past year?
YMCA Impact Through 2020
CM: Oh my goodness. We could have an entire weekend on this. I feel like I am in a position, or you and I are often, where anyone listening to this is going to be an expert in some incredible examples of this one thing we did.
Right when COVID hit, we immediately started watching to wrap our heads around the answer to your question. What are they doing and what do they need, were the things that we have been watching the data for. I think one of the things that the story really tells, and data is nothing without context, right?
We can talk about check-ins changing and joins changing, and renewals changing, and all of that falls in the proof point category, but the “so what?” And “in what context?” is related to COVID, the data really backs up a lot of the bright spots that you've actually been highlighting on this podcast.
The pieces that we're seeing are the doors never closed. The physical doors may have closed, but the data backs up that everything still kept flowing. There were different ways that members were engaged, and you could see it. There were still check-ins and they became virtual check-ins. We started quickly being able to keep track of that.
There was outreach happening that had always happened from communications. The way that it was done pivoted very quickly to be thoughtful, given the circumstances.
Programming. The programming data over the last year is fascinating, and again, backs up so much of what Y leaders have been highlighting that they've been doing. Things we all know very well.
We can see the data immediately shifted. We saw holds very quickly, which makes sense. Everyone knows the story of that. We saw program registrations take a beat and then go up immediately because we had things that we know of, not just emergency response childcare, which is absolutely one of the biggest headlines, but then quickly after that, there was outreach to seniors who were isolated, that we see in programming.
There were meal programs where we kind of saw forms being created or programs where those pieces were still going. There was a reinvisioning quickly once we understood the long-term impact of school around, “what did this mean?” Not just for emergency childcare, but what does this mean that families who now have children at home and are working at home need in terms of virtual engagement with school aged children?
From a data perspective, I can give some numbers to that, and I'm happy to, but the headline very much is that we saw immediate response. Pivot on a dime.
SW: You and I were in the thick of pulling all of this data together, and like you said, like trying to put the context and understand what we were seeing.
I might cry as we talk about this, but do you remember the month? I don't even remember what month it was, where we saw at first, everything just took this huge dip, but the part, the one piece that went up was donations. Across the board. That, to me, was just so beautiful to see. At that time, the doors were shut, the physical doors were shut, but then the community was still giving on supporting these YMCAs through the through.
CM: Right. I thought of that the other day. I'm so glad you added that in. I want to check what month that is. I'm almost positive it was April. I thought of it when I listened to one of your earlier episodes, that's a wonderful example, Saranda, of when we see donations go up, what does that mean? What are the Ys doing? What is driving that?
It was a reminder of, we're here and this is the work that we do and how we're going to keep doing it. That response was beautiful.
SW: Yeah. Talk us through this data and these insights. What did that process look like? Then what was the end result starting in March?
Capturing Data and Insights
CM: All of us, you included, we started capturing as much information as we could. The first stage was everyone's closed now. What's going to happen and what do they need help with? We were monitoring on two levels. What's happening with the Ys right now? Because we should know that so we can help. Then, what questions were the Ys themselves reaching out to us to be able to answer?
Those were really the two guiding posts: a sense of not only what's happening now, but the result. From both those perspectives of what's going on with the Ys and then the questions that they were asking, what's happening with the rest of the country, or specifically what's happening right now with Ys that look like me.
That was what really drove the data that we started tracking. We started surfacing that as quickly as we could through our company. Then also through our Y facing roles and giving the trends that we were seeing so that we could better answer questions and quickly a phase two of that became how do we make this consumable?
How do we help in a way where we're not only reacting and speak to what we're seeing, but how do we get it out into as many hands as we can so that we can help?
SW: Absolutely. Help me understand the difference between data, because I think of spreadsheets and my eyes crossing and numbers, and the insights.
In particular, what's the different between data and insights?
Data vs. Insights
CM: I mentioned earlier that we needed hours for this one. We want to do a special on this. I will wax poetically, so let me speak to that as crisply as my data-loving heart can. Data is transactional. It is numbers. We all know this. I'm stating something that everyone on this podcast knows.
The difference is that it means absolutely nothing until it is put in context. Data is literal ones and twos and threes and fours. They are counts. It is counts.
Insights becomes when I can make meaning of those counts, and that’s stating something obvious, but to explain how that matters on the ground: It needs to be contextualized in as many different ways as possible.
To play out in analogy: I can have one of something. It can be one jelly bean. It can be a house. Those are two very different things that mean different things. I can be tracking how many jelly beans I have, and I had five last year and I had 10 this year. If I don't put that in context, do I know if that is better?
Do I know if that is worse? Did I need more jelly beans? Should I have gotten something else? Is that my goal? Maybe I have 10 because last year I had five and my goal was to double it. Should that have been my goal? Those are all things that fall in the insights category. Data is nothing but ingredients that help us truly understand.
I'm going to speak poetically for a moment: this is a way for us to understand the world. There's lots of different paths to do that. It's simply information. One of the things that insights bring us, of course, is the meaning. We've got ingredients in there. Meaning is the quick answer to your question.
SW: In terms of the Insights and Impact Report, how have you seen the data and insights trending so far this year?
Insights and Impact Report
CM: Yeah, we're actually looking at that right now. We're transitioning that report to be from monthly to quarterly because we're seeing some stabilization of trends. When we originally started reporting, it was every day. What happened yesterday?
Then it was every week. How did we end last week? Then it was by month, and now we're seeing the normalcy in the sense of the dat. Not a return, but a sense of a leveling out of registrations, of check-ins, of membership rates, of renewals. Those are starting to reflect what recovery and a thriving normal is looking like.
The level of open is continuing. The level of check-ins is somewhat continuing. One of the things that I'm still looking at right now is what did the most unusual January we've ever seen in terms of a January join situation, look like? That is atypical, but if you take out the seasonality effect and you think about virtual being new normal, digital being new normal, virtual school, all of those things explains when you look at the last couple months of 2020. When you look and we publish the next month, what the first quarter of 2021 is going to look like, that’s the headline.
SW: That's so encouraging to go from day-to-day, what is going to happen to now? To looking back at a quarterly trend. That’s a huge step.
Constance, you obviously have this craft that you are continuously evolving as it comes to research and data and analytics. What resources would you recommend for someone if they wanted to learn more? How do they master this craft?
Developing the Data Craft
CM: So much around statistics and insights can seem academic, very difficult. Particularly, if we start talking about things that the world has become much more comfortable with than they were five, 10 years ago.
I think about the concept of answering your question in terms of understanding an algorithm. If we talked about that six years ago, that was a very different answer than it is now. We all know on some level how to explain that. There's a lot of consumable reading on data and insights.
There are two lanes. A general lane, and wrapping your head around this topic has been out for a while. It's the Malcolm Gladwell's of the world. If anyone's a Freakonomics podcast listener, those are two of my very available, “you could put your hands on them right now, wherever you live” resources, and they've been around forever. It truly is a lovely handholding into this world and how to speak to it or understand the outputs from it.
If there is desire to do the literal work rather than consume it, I can recommend a few. I don't know if we want to endorse them, but there have actually been some incredible certification processes. They are simply six weeks long if you want to learn some of the data analysis. There are some free courses right now that are actually offered to places like lynda.com and even Harvard has one.
Stanford has another where you can wrap your head around, Data's good. I like data. I don't know what to do with it, or I'm only in a consumer mode and I find it interesting, but I want to get better at doing it myself. The available information through free resources at a university like Harvard is off the charts over the past three years, and I consume them myself again.
There's really two lanes. Do you want to understand the world better? Or do you want to develop the craft better? For understanding, I would recommend everybody the reading list again, the Freakonomics podcast is one of my absolute favorites for this. If you want to get into the craft, I actually taught myself before there were the resources that I just said. This is a ridiculous recommendation, but I taught myself some of the most amazing things on YouTube videos, and it's that accessible.
I taught myself. I was analyzing the data. I had another question and I was like, “This is taking too long. Has someone figured this out?” I remember going on YouTube and learning a brand-new formula in Excel that I hadn't learned before.
That's a vague answer, but I hope it's helpful because so much of this work used to be very unapproachable. It used to be something that you did have to go take a class in or get a degree in. There's just so much ability to either speak to and consume information that comes out or self-teach.
SW: Yeah, no, that's perfect. I agree. I tell my kids, right now, they ask me all these questions all the time. Of course, I don't know the answer to them because they're random, and I say, “Go look it up.” Just go look it up. You will find it.
CM: Yes! And I will say that the piece that actually has matured the most in me over my career is not the literal, “How do I do this formula?” Or “I don't understand the stats problem,” like you said.
We can go find that. The piece that takes sitting with it and loving this world is truly going back to that question about the difference between data and impact: what is meaningful and what is not? There is an almost 40-year-old saying in this world, which is, “You can be data rich and information poor.”
There are so many wonderful resources that tell all of us what to do, but it goes back to the, why am I doing this? What am I trying to understand? What question am I trying to answer? Is that an important question? Is it the right question to answer? Because that actually is what makes this world exciting to me and how anyone who wants to learn it, that's actually where to start.
I maybe don't need to learn this advanced skill over here. I thought I did. I need to learn a different one, or we've been tracking this KPI forever. I don't even know how I'm using it anymore. To the point of the new normal, the world has changed. What actually do we wish we could speak to that we can’t now?
Let's go pay attention to that and measure that and learn if we don't have a skill to do it, what that skill is. Google that, or look that one up or ask for help there. That's my true passion around this work is the answer to that changes all the time.
SW: As you've been navigating the pandemic and looking at all of this data, how do you stay healthy and happy yourself? I know that's like a big question, obviously.
CM: It's a very big question. I struggled with this a lot in two different points over the past year. In a crisis, my instinct is to work. After about three months of very, very long hours, I wasn't healthy.
I had to take an honest look at that. I started walking outside as much as I could. It's such a simple thing, but it wasn't happening. Doing that again, and even though the city was still quiet where I live, being out in the world again and being able to move, not just my mind, which was the only thing that was moving and it was exhausted, but move my body and make intentional choices around nutrition.
I'm a plant-based eater, and that's very important to me, and making sure that I was getting things like variety of movement and variety in what I put in my body. Those are two things I had to do. The second check was the emotional health aspect of it. Around the holidays this past year, I was overwhelmed by that, and I didn't expect that.
I had to do that same level of work with reflection. So, my long answer to your question is I did not do a good job at this. I had to add back in a new plan, a new normal for physical movement. I had to create a new process to reflect on how I was doing as a person. Both those things were a lot of work, and I'm glad I did them.
SW: Thank you for sharing that, Constance.
I can't speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself, but I think that all of us struggled in some way last year, right? It was such a hard year, whether you were directly impacted by COVID in terms of getting sick or losing a loved one, or just how you coped with it. I can absolutely empathize with the default back to work.
We've just all got to, I think, constantly try to find that balance where you check yourself and make sure you're taking care of yourself first, so you can take care of everyone else around you.
CM: Yeah. I still need to work on that. This is a good reminder. Thank you for asking.
SW: I do as well. We're right there together.
If people want to follow up on anything that we've talked about, where would be the best place for them to go?
CM: Oh, absolutely. On daxko.com, there's a section or you can just Google Daxko Insights and Impact Report. That is an exceptional starting point, and then as you have any questions from there, there's ways to reach us, to reach out to me.
I am certainly accessible as are other folks who answer our phones for questions. That is one example of a place where you can always go find what's going on. Our goal is to make that a living breathing thing that stays forever and really changes over time in terms of, like we talked about earlier as the headlines of the world changes.
And as the questions that we need to answer change, that's a place where we're going to keep a pulse on that and put that front and center and just, and just out in the world. So I would recommend starting there. Perfect.
SW: Constance, thank you so much for the time today. As we're going to end, any final words that you would leave everyone with?
CM: The first words that came to mind were, “Thank you.” It’s sincere. Thank you to those listening on the podcast. I know that you're probably going to agree with what I'm about to say, Saranda, but I've lost track of all the people that we've talked to. Not only over our careers, but over the past year around what this would look like and what the plans that are being put in place now.
I've always been impressed when you talk about how isolated people are feeling or what they've sat with for a year on what they need in terms of connection, that in the role that Ys play in that. I can't, there's not, I mean, all of the things I can say sound like throwing out platitudes that you can't overstate.
It's what everybody needs. I mean, you just can't. I think, honestly, after that hit me so badly, I think I just got better. I'm to the point where I know I'm going to have to take a moment. It's overwhelming, the work that has been done in the Y movement and is happening right now. So, my final thoughts are thank you.
SW: Thank you, Constance.
CM: My pleasure.
SW: Thanks so much for listening to the latest episode of The Accelerant. As always, this is about inspiring you … And me. Okay, all of us. Let us know what you've learned, what you want to hear, any other thoughts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at Daxko, that's at d-a-x-k-o, or post with #accelerantpodcast.
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Accelerant podcast is a product of Daxko, serving the health and wellness community for over 20 years with comprehensive technology solutions to over 17 million members worldwide. Learn more at daxko.com. That's d-a-x-k-o dot com. Accelerant is produced by Christy Brown, Sean Ellis Hussey, and me, Saranda West. Sound and editing by Sean Ellis Hussey. Visual design by Jenny Miller.
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