Data Diaries: Goals and Challenges from Back on My Feet


Elizabeth Manning serves as Vice President of Program and Evaluation at Back on My Feet. This national nonprofit combats homelessness through the power of physical activity, community support, and employment and housing resources.


She oversees program staff in fourteen cities, and her duties include assessing the organization’s impact, such as inputs, trends, outputs, replications, and best practices. She is also leading Back on My Feet’s strategic shift to deepen and broaden volunteer opportunities to support members in new ways, including career coaching and professional services support.


Back on My Feet believes this shift—informed by external data on homelessness in the key to the organization’s ability to scale. The organization is currently serving hundreds of people, but it wants to put a more significant dent in the country’s homeless population of nearly 600,000. For example, in Chicago, where Back on My Feet has a location, there are more than 5,000 individuals experiencing homelessness. Serving more of this population creates an untapped market that could prove to be a win-win-win for those in need of housing, Back on My Feet, and the City of Chicago.


To scale to this magnitude, Back on My Feet will need to bring on hundreds of volunteers, utilizing their lived experiences and social capital to connect with a broader range of individuals.


Elizabeth recently sat down with Travis Centers, Vice President of Community Development at RiseKit, to discuss its goals and objectives and its challenges.

TC: In your position, what are your goals and objectives?

EM: We are usually driving towards quantitative metrics while also taking into account qualitative and contextual information. I am a data-driven person. Data can give us a lot of good numeric insights. That’s where some information is, but usually, that information actually just requires more questions. So that cycle of learning is really important.


In terms of the way we think about quantitative impact in the data that we track, there are a couple of key numbers that we look for. One of the things that we’re always driving towards is the number of members we employ throughout our program. Last year, during the COVID pandemic, among the many challenges that posed to all of us, that number was just about 600. This year we’re looking to employ 1,000 members or more. The other thing we look for is quality and efficiency. We look at the number of members employed per program staff. This gives us a sense of how much we can accomplish per staff person, and we’re trying to drive that metric up over time.

Key to our evolving program strategy is volunteer engagement and retention, so we are working on a better assessment of volunteer numbers. We want to increase volunteers and activities stepwise and volunteer retention.

TC: What are some of the biggest data-related challenges to doing your job effectively?

EM: There are a couple of challenges. The first is time, which will only be exacerbated as we continue to evolve. Right now, staff are the primary data collectors. Over time, we’ll be gathering more data from volunteers and, ideally, members as well. The next thing is consistency and standardization around data collection and input. What we’re holding our staff accountable to are metrics around employment and efficiency. But too narrow a focus on those numbers could mean we overlook a gap around the type of employment or other key indicators. We’re looking to build consistency across those multiple reporters to manage and address that, simplify our systems and make them more user-friendly.

I don’t have as much time as I used to dig into the data. That is really informative for continuous program improvement and course corrections. What is the data telling us right now, and how do we share the information and make it more real-time? Next, we need to focus on the outputs. Are we on track to reaching these goals?

For example, a certain number of touchpoints were related to a big jump in member employment. How do we then create an experience around this outcome? How do we also minimize balancing those efforts between community building and outpacing our workforce activities? So again, we want to be more focused on what real-time data can tell us.


Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity and is the first part of a two-part series.