Finally, the truth behind the numbers!
HOORAY FOR STATISTICS!
Stay with us here. You might end up getting excited about this too. Think of it this way:
How is community vitality growing? Which types of activity have thrived in the past few months? Which activities could use added support to gain momentum? Where are these signs taking shape locally?
These questions naturally come to mind in reading the reality of the places where Bahá’ís are actively building community.
Statistics certainly aren’t the only tool for answering those questions. But they’re an essential one. Use of statistics was a key method for Shoghi Effendi for many years. More recently, the Universal House of Justice has frequently reaffirmed their importance in planning and assessing Bahá’í activities.
In a 2007 letter to all National Spiritual Assemblies, the Supreme Institution says the use of statistics “draws attention to strengths to be built upon and weaknesses to be overcome, to track progress, analyse the patterns of growth prevalent in their communities and decide upon the next set of goals to be adopted.”
Notes Elizabeth Herth, national statistics officer for our National Spiritual Assembly, “More than just an exchange of data takes place when information is shared at the cluster, regional, and national levels.”
When institutions and individuals talk with each other about the reality of growth within our Bahá’í communities, she says, communities can become stronger “in terms of collaboration, cooperation, and community building.”
Caution: Statistics at work
Two major computer programs launched by the Bahá’í World Center are in use worldwide:
- SRP (Statistical Report Program), implemented in the United States in 2007, a repository of information about how many enrolled Bahá’ís live in each cluster and local community; how many institute courses have been completed; how many core activities, Feasts and Holy Day observances are held regularly in a cluster; and how participation is in each. In the words of the House of Justice, this is “the most essential information required to evaluate the progress of a cluster.”
- The newer SRPi (Statistical Report Program for the Training Institute), which manages information on how many people—Bahá’ís and others—participate in institute courses, children’s classes and junior youth groups.
These are the only programs that “decentralize the collection and maintenance of statistical data” about local communities and pass it on to regional, national and global-level institutions.
Where you see it
When certain messages from the Universal House of Justice share worldwide trends and numbers of people taking part in the community-building processes ... that’s one place you see those statistics.
When the Continental Counselors or the National Spiritual Assembly take the “temperature” of the progress and spiritual health of the national Bahá’í community ... statistics are always part of those consultations.
When Regional Bahá’í Councils analyze their areas of service and assess where clusters are in their development, a significant reality check on local activity comes from ... statistics.
When cluster teams analyze activity in neighborhoods and sectors, assessing where it’s worth directing intensive activity, where additional accompaniment would be useful, and who is available to pitch in on which tasks … need we repeat?
In the thick of this is a network of statistics officers at the national, regional and cluster levels, They gather, record, pass on, and sometimes help analyze the precious data in SRP and SRPi.
They can be seen as operating both horizontally and vertically. To enhance planning, each works with institutions and agencies at the appropriate level. For example, a cluster officer works with the Area Teaching Committee, Assemblies and groups, junior youth or study circle coordinators, Auxiliary Board members or assistants, and others.
They also help flow information from the cluster to the regional level, to the National Statistics Office, and thence to the Bahá’í World Center. And they accompany each other, Herth says, in part by talking about processes that work and those that don’t.
Like charity, it begins at home
Enough theory. Let’s see how this works in our clusters. It all starts with the cluster statistics officer, whose job is to, well, gather statistics.
Getting that information reliably is “largely a matter of building up relationships,” says Archie Abaire, statistics officer for the Richmond, Virginia, area. In his cluster’s case, one key is respectful, persevering communication with Assembly and group secretaries, plus an easy-to-fill-out monthly questionnaire about local activities.
Herth notes that many officers will “travel from town to town or sector to sector, to support reflection gatherings, or drop in at a children’s class at the Bahá’í Center, or visit an active junior youth group,” all to make sure they have a solid and periodically updated census about the cluster.
“Many strategies have been tried,” notes Viki Lee, regional statistics officer for the Atlantic States. Sometimes the statistics officers have to change their methods as conditions shift, people move around, and new learning emerges.
Where are all these data stored? Generally on desktop or laptop computers at the cluster level. Learning is ongoing about the most efficient ways of storing and sharing the information.
For instance, Lee says, some clusters will acquire an inexpensive laptop — perhaps an older one, because SRP and SRPi don’t demand much memory or processing power — and the statistics officer will share the machine among the ATC, institute coordinators, and others who need to study and utilize the data.
The rubber hits the road
Since last summer’s youth conferences, Lee says, teaching committees in several Atlantic States clusters have used SRP to identify 15- to 30-year-olds in their clusters, “especially interested in knowing if [they] are hosting core activities or accompanying others, … engaged in meaningful conversation, or … participating in institute courses.”
When consultation between, say, an Auxiliary Board member and a Local Assembly is enriched with statistics that clarify the local reality, that can provide motivation “to make home visits [or] to continue to encourage the friends to go through the sequence of courses.”
In Washington County near Portland, Oregon, ATC secretary Chris Bily says another thing the committee analyzes is “how well the devotional character of a neighborhood or community is being strengthened,” particularly the numbers of people at devotional gatherings, how many friends of the Faith are attending, and to what extent they’re being encouraged to join study circles.
Let’s widen the lens a bit to the regional level.
Without going into much detail — after all, each of the 10 Councils directs its own process — the Regional Bahá’í Council of the Northeastern States, according to secretary Chet Makoski, has created a system to assess the state of advancement for each of its region’s 49 clusters.
How does it make those assessments? With guidance from the Bahá’í World Center always in mind, Council members call cluster agencies in each zone regularly. They visit clusters. On monthly calls and in the field, they confer with the Regional Training Institute and other institutions and agencies serving the region. And stats from the clusters are a companion to all those discussions.
That may help the Council see, for example, that “a focus neighborhood in one cluster can use some homefront pioneers to serve as animators and children’s class teachers; another cluster has developed to the extent that an Area Teaching Committee is needed; another would benefit if someone were chosen to act as a cluster development facilitator to support the participation of believers and friends of the faith in home visits, devotional meeting and other teaching activities; and so on.”
The aim is to get a program of growth running in every one of those 49 clusters by the end of this Five Year Plan — contributing that region’s share to the Universal House of Justice’s vision of 5,000 programs operating worldwide.
National, looping back to local
What happens nationally?
It’s not just compiling data from all the regions and sending reports to the World Center, though that’s essential.
“Data alone do not provide sufficient insight into the growth process,” Herth says. “Rather, coherent analysis, including stories and narrative about what made progress possible and what was learned along the way, is essential.”
The National Statistics Office will “trend” the data, analyzing it in six-month intervals, sometimes plotting it on maps, to clarify what gains are being made across which U.S. regions.
There’s also training, listening, and sharing — helping the knowledge of these tools become contagious. In the past couple of years, the Statistics Office began inviting members of Local Assemblies and cluster agencies to sit down side by side at regional and area meetings, “spaces to talk” about how SRP and SRPi are used and share their learning.
In the end, understanding is a big part of what it’s all about, Herth notes. Handling statistics is “a position of trust, maintaining a balance between reporting and respecting people.” And it’s a process that “may feel awkward, but we learn as we go. It’s a process of learning to make it flow.”