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Data Fundamentally Changed Our Operations — It Can Change Yours, Too

Date: November 3, 2022

Paul Luu

CEO, Chinese American Service League (CASL)

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If there is one thing we have learned at the Chinese American Service League (CASL), it’s that data has the potential to revolutionize the way we look at philanthropy and change the landscape for years to come.

No longer are heartfelt appeals for funding and support enough for nonprofit organizations like CASL. Now, philanthropists want clear data demonstrating an issue — and data about how your organization’s solutions will effect change.

It’s undeniable that data-driven, evidence-based projects have reached the philanthropic mainstream and that data is critical to philanthropy in the 21st century. Some of the largest charitable organizations in the world — from Bloomberg Philanthropies to the Rockefeller Foundation — are making investments in data and leveraging for impact.

Data is causing an “evolutionary shift” in philanthropy, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin wrote in 2018, leading organizations and individual donors to increasingly view data “as the fuel for innovation and social change.”

The problem is that research and analytics can be a major drain on resources. Since I became CEO of CASL in 2017, we have rapidly expanded both our service offerings and our staff. But the bigger an organization grows, the more necessary data becomes to ensure we are making the greatest impact possible.

With 26 programs and almost 600 employees, CASL is the largest nonprofit social service agency serving Asian Americans in the Midwest, but we have still had to make massive investments in our data infrastructure in the last few years.

Beginning in 2020, CASL began issuing annual surveys to our clients, focusing on Social Determinants of Health (SDoH), a type of data point that provides greater context regarding how different socioeconomic conditions contribute to health outcomes. The surveys have given us a deeper understanding of our clients, allowing us to pivot our operations to make the greatest impact.

For smaller organizations, sound data may not be in the cards at all, or it may be a long-term goal that will leave them playing catch-up. That’s why, after seeing the impact SDoH had on our organization and community, we decided to expand this resource to smaller organizations that would benefit from it but do not have the necessary in-house resources.

In Spring 2022, CASL launched Change InSight, a data consortium that aims to empower organizations across the nation to collect data on the communities they serve, helping them tailor their services, efficiently secure and designate resources, and more successfully lobby for change with local, state, and federal policymakers.

Change InSight is a first-of-its-kind initiative. As a national data platform focused on SDoH, it is a direct answer to the plague of aggregated data, which has been labeled as one of the largest civil rights issues facing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) populations today.

All too frequently, researchers gather aggregated data on AAPI communities, combining the more than 50 Asian subgroups into one monolithic demographic. Additionally, these subgroups speak more than 100 languages, and current data collection and research efforts are not conducted in every language, therefore muting those communities’ voices. By combining all subgroups and leaving out certain languages, researchers have rendered individual communities’ struggles invisible and made it harder, if not impossible, for organizations serving those groups to receive adequate funding and support.

For example, aggregate data shows 10% of Asian Americans live in poverty, a better rate than the 13% national average, according to the Pew Research Center. But disaggregated tells a different story — that 13% of Chinese Americans, 17% of Nepalese Americans, and 25% of Burmese Americans live in poverty, all rates far greater than Asian Americans as a whole.

Change InSight partners with organizations serving our nation’s diverse populations. We provide SDoH surveys — which include questions on topics such as health, safety, and food security — that organizations administer to their clients. They then submit their findings to Change InSight, and our in-house data analysts produce reports that organizations can use to appeal to donors and policymakers.

By empowering partner organizations with our own data infrastructure and research, it saves them time and valuable resources that smaller organizations either cannot afford to spare or do not currently have access to.

It is our dream to uncover granular data for each AAPI community so the organizations that serve them can continue affecting change.

AAPI communities desperately need data to receive more philanthropic funding. Just 20 cents of every $100 in grants awarded by charitable foundations goes toward AAPI needs, according to a study released last year by Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. That’s despite Asian Americans being the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, making up 6.1% of the population. This is undoubtedly an inexcusable shortcoming of the philanthropic community, but is it really that big of a surprise when philanthropists have for so long lacked access to strong data?

Quality data is critical to securing new support, but we’ve also learned that it helps CASL more efficiently allocate our resources. In 2020, when we began issuing an annual SDoH survey to our own clients, the survey data helped us quickly identify several core areas where we could adapt our services to make an impact. For example, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognized seniors in our community were struggling with food insecurity and implemented a Senior Meals Program to deliver free, culturally appropriate meals to local in-need seniors.

Results from our first SDoH survey confirmed what we already suspected: that an alarming number of our seniors faced food insecurity. Armed with that data, we secured federal grant funding and cemented our Senior Meals Program as a permanent addition to our roster of more than two-dozen services. Today, we serve about 350 seniors three meals per day, five days per week, and we will soon expand to serve 1,000 seniors daily.

Every nonprofit community service organization deserves to have that level of knowledge about its own community’s needs. We hope Change InSight can deliver that sort of high-quality data to our partner organizations and the philanthropists and policymakers who need to see it, and we hope that other organizations embark on data-driven undertakings such as this.

We would love to solve every problem our community faces overnight. While that’s unfortunately not possible, a strong investment in data helps us make a powerful effort.

Paul Luu is CEO of Chinese American Service League (CASL). Find CASL on Twitter at @CASLmedia.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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