Using Data to Improve Community Engagement

Over the past four years, Salesforce has partnered with buildOn to transform the way data is collected and utilized in the international non-profit sector. Previous barriers, such as internet access in the field, are being eliminated through Platform for Change and its innovative chatbot, making it easier for staff on the ground to gather crucial data about buildOn’s programs. The data that is collected is in turn helping buildOn to identify and address challenges, measure the success of our work and, most importantly, share that impact with our supporters. 

In Nicaragua, the data gathered through the Platform for Change chatbot allowed buildOn staff to discover key trends in regards to community leadership and participation on the worksite. Armed with this information, the team in Nicaragua was able to make changes that increased community involvement and improved the effectiveness of buildOn’s programs in their country.

Men and women in Nicaragua attend a meeting to learn more about buildOn and their role as community members in the project.

buildOn doesn’t build schools for communities, it builds schools with communities. This is one of the first things that community members hear when they attend a pre-construction meeting to learn more about buildOn’s methodology and their role in the school build. In addition to committing to educating girls and contributing any local construction materials to the project, the community members all agree to volunteer their time on the worksite–physically building the school alongside buildOn’s engineers. These volunteers are recruited and led by a group of six men and six women from the community, known as the Project Leadership Committee (PLC).

When buildOn partnered with Platform for Change to create the chatbot, two of the first data points the tool collected were the number of days that community members volunteered on the worksite (Volunteer Work Days) and the attendance of PLC members at weekly meetings. As this data was collected and analyzed, buildOn’s Impact Officer, Sergio Matus, began to notice an interesting trend: In the communities with strong local leadership and PLC attendance, the project thrived due to a consistent number of volunteers on the worksite. On the other hand, in the communities where PLC members missed meetings or dropped off the project, the number of volunteers plummeted and the project lagged.

“Instinctively we knew that good leaders were needed to have success, and the numbers showed us that this was true,” says Sergio. One community where this was especially the case was the village of El Papayo. From the start, buildOn staff struggled to get enough volunteers on the worksite. “Many factors affected participation,” says Sergio. “The first one was a wave of migration. Massive amounts of people started leaving the community and beginning a journey to reach the United States. We lost one of the leaders on the second week of construction for that reason.” COVID-19, and the start of the coffee harvesting season also created a shortage of volunteers in El Papayo.

In addition to the many legitimate obstacles faced by people living in impoverished agricultural communities, some residents simply weren’t motivated to volunteer, a challenge that Sergio believes was due to the quality of leaders selected to be on their Project Leadership Committee. While the project started out well, as the participation of the PLC members dropped off, so did the number of Volunteer Work Days from community members. buildOn staff members held mass meetings and went door-to-door in an effort to gather more volunteers from the community, but without strong local leadership, they struggled.

Sergio used data collected from the Platform for Change chatbot to create this graph illustrating the correlation between PLC meeting attendance and Volunteer Work Days in the community of El Papayo.

Using the insights they gained from the chatbot data, Sergio and the Nicaragua team came up with an improved strategy for selecting PLC members and keeping them engaged. “During our initial community meetings we clarified the type of people we wanted for the Project Leadership Committee,” says Sergio. “People who were proactive, who didn’t mind going door-to-door to convince their neighbors to join, and who were willing to sacrifice themselves. We told them that if they really wanted this project it had to come from them.” By being more selective about who they chose to be a part of the PLC, and intentionally stressing the difficulty of the job and the need for strong leaders, the Nicaragua team was able to find better PLC members for future projects–people like Gleici Castilblanco Gutiérrez from the community of San Ramon.

Gleici Castilblanco Gutiérrez was one of the PLC members in San Ramon, and played a key role in the project’s success in her community.

Gleici, now 21, remembers the school where she learned as a child. “It was a little house where a man lived; the roof was made of clay shingles, and the walls lined with thin boards. I dreamed that someday we would have a good school,” she says. It was that dream that fueled Gleici’s motivation to get involved when buildOn came to San Ramon to construct a new school. buildOn staff immediately identified Gleici as a great candidate for the PLC, and more specifically for the role as project Secretary, due to her high school education.

Despite her qualifications, Gleici had doubts and worried that the project would be too difficult for her. In addition to her personal hesitations, it is also uncommon for women in Nicaragua to take on leadership roles, especially in relation to construction projects. It was Gleici’s determination to have a school in her community that drove her to overcome her fears and accept the role of PLC Secretary. “It was never seen in these parts that a woman worked in construction, but in the end I could do it,” she says with pride. “Now that we have this new school, even though I know I will not be studying in it, the rest of the children are, and if I ever get to have children they’ll come here to school.”

“These projects bring more than a school to a community. They present the opportunity for many people to realize the dreams that they have to see their villages flourish, and to build a better future for themselves and their neighbors. It leaves communities with a new building, and also new leaders.”

Sergio Matus, buildOn Impact Officer, Nicaragua

Gleici and the other PLC members in San Ramon proved to be just the sort of leaders that buildOn was looking for, and their dedication to the project and consistent attendance at meetings led to high numbers of Volunteer Work Days in San Ramon. Almost every week, the community exceeded the required number of volunteers on the worksite and the overall enthusiasm around the project was high. “These projects bring more than a school to a community,” says Sergio. “They present the opportunity for many people to realize the dreams that they have to see their villages flourish, and to build a better future for themselves and their neighbors. It leaves communities with a new building, and also new leaders.”

Without data, the buildOn team in Nicaragua wouldn’t have been able to analyze or address these challenges in their work. The ease of tools like the Platform for Change chatbot are making data much more accessible for nonprofits like buildOn, and paving the way for more data-driven decision making. Through the continued partnership of Platform for Change, buildOn hopes to cement its role as a leader in the nonprofit sector, by using a wealth of data to create more effective programs, and transform the lives of thousands of children and adults through service and education.