Promotor Natalia Diaz, left, meets with Vanessa Vega at the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For the Washington Post)

Best practice: Using data.

Nonprofit: Latin American Youth Center.

Type of work: Youth development. Served 4,000 youths last year.

Locations: Columbia Heights, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County.

Number of staff: 140.

Annual budget: $14 million.

When Tyra Little showed up at the doors of the Latin American Youth Center two years ago, the then-16-year old struggled with many issues. She was homeless and had dropped out of high school. The teenager’s situation was one of the more challenging cases for the organization. So it’s no wonder that two years later, staff at the center recently found themselves in tears when helping Little move into her new dormitory at Morgan State University, where she is pursuing a career in social work.

It’s the kind of success story that every charity covets, but can’t always afford to make happen.

In fact, it cost LAYC more than $1 million over seven years to hire the right brains to corral and crunch the mounds of data necessary to design a program that can help a troubled young person live a successful and self-sufficient life.

That can be a hefty expense even for a charity the size of LAYC that operates on a $14 million budget. But as more donors demand nonprofits prove their success with numbers, nonprofits such as LAYC are now seeing the value in investing in big data.

“Ten years ago, no one thought data was important, and donors gave based on anecdotes,” said Sacha Litman, managing director of Measuring Success, a data consulting firm for nonprofits. “Now donors want to see the impact of their giving.”

While some charities are just now embracing the data revolution, LAYC saw the tide changing early.

In 2005, the 45-year-old organization was overwhelmed with requests for data.

Agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education and a dozen other groups were requesting statistics on the charity’s performance, including whether a student got a job and how much the job paid him or her. These funders and government agencies wanted to know which nonprofits were doing the best job so they could get a greater social return for their dollars.

“Everyone was talking about evidence-based return on investment and ‘prove to me that your intervention made a difference,’” said Lori Kaplan, chief executive and president of the LAYC. “I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got to get on this train.’ But if we’re going to do it, it’s got to be meaningful and make us better.”

Paper to digital

At that time, record-keeping was done on paper, and just getting a head count of students was a headache, let alone tracking their progress.

So after securing a grant, the organization hired a researcher to churn out data that would meet funder requirements, but also reveal areas where the group might help youth achieve better outcomes.

The researcher created a data evaluation team, implemented a data system, called Efforts to Outcomes, and defined which outcomes to track for each of its programs. The research team also trained 140 staff members at various locations to go from paper to digital.

“It was a bit of a shock to the staff and required a lot of training,” said Susana Martinez, a LAYC program director.

The staff was required to enter data related to students’ progress in areas such as academic skills, high school graduation, communication, legal involvement and parenting.

The evaluation team then analyzed the data every few months.

With the findings, they found they needed to open another office in Maryland to better serve their clientele where they lived. There were also pleasant surprises: The group discovered it had a good story to tell in terms of its pass rate for high school equivalency tests.

Perhaps the most important findings were identifying the myriad issues associated with their highest risk youth.

“We concluded that they didn’t get into this situation overnight, so we are not going to be able to address it overnight,” Kaplan said. “And we certainly were not going to do it in a three-month program just to get them through it and satisfy funders.”

Creating a program

This discovery sent senior staff on a quest to design a program that would serve their most challenged youth and give them a chance to become successful members of the community.

After a few years of research, in 2008 LAYC created its Promotor Pathway program, where high-risk youth between the ages of 16 to 24 are paired with one consistent “promotor,” which is a term used in the Latino community to mean an advocate or community health worker. That promotor is available to them 24/7.

There are currently 11 promotores serving 200 youth.

The staff continue to collect data in the areas of workforce development, education and healthy behavior to track the progress of their programs. So far the numbers show that students with promotores have better school attendance, housing situations, less substance abuse and less unhealthy sexual behavior.

“When we get reports, we’re able to see where they are struggling,” said Jaime Roberts, a promotor since last year. “It boosts our morale to see that this many have jobs or this many girls got on birth control.”

Roberts helped move her mentee, Tyra Little, into her new dorm. Little is now in her third week of classes.

“It was fun. It was emotional,” Roberts said.