Starfish Family Services Selected as a Crain’s Detroit Business ‘Best-Managed Nonprofit”

Starfish Family Services building master record system to consolidate client data
by Sherri Welch

Data is key to helping nonprofits measure and communicate their impact and to making strategic decisions about where best to invest scarce resources. But it’s not always easy to figure out how to measure intangible things like a child’s well-being, overall development and likelihood of succeeding in college. The co-winners of the 2018 Best-Managed Nonprofit contest are doing exactly that.

This year, judges chose to lift up both a larger-budget nonprofit and a smaller nonprofit for the steps they are taking to get their arms around their data and use it in meaningful ways to better meet their missions.

Midnight Golf has launched two new data systems over the past year. One is aimed at keeping track of the growing number of high school seniors and college students it’s supporting. The other helps track its donors and their interests, while also providing a source of internship possibilities for the students it serves. Starfish Family Services is bringing data from over 20 disparate systems into a single system that will provide a more complete view of all of the programs a child or family it serves is receiving, along with indicators of how those clients are doing overall.

Both efforts are aimed at finding the best ways to help those they serve. Crain’s will honor the two organizations in late February during its annual Newsmaker of the Year lunch.


  • It’s committed $2 million, 3-5 years to develop and roll out the new system
  • Will eliminate duplication, provide holistic view of children and family success
  • Expected to produce $2.5 million in cost savings, new revenue

One of Starfish Family Services’ core strengths is its ability to serve children and families through a variety of  early childhood, children’s mental health and family support programs. But that same breadth of service has also been its Achilles’ heel. Information on the clients in each of its programs lives in different, siloed systems. That creates stress and frustration for parents who are asked to provide the same information over and over again. And it prevents Starfish staff from linking things like a young child’s behavioral issues in the classroom with stress happening at home due to a pending foreclosure, something communicated to the agency by the child’s mom through a separate Starfish program.

“We end up with 20 different data systems we’re putting information in” on who’s served and their outcomes, President and CEO Ann Kalass said. “If we’re looking at the whole child … we want to be able to see everything (they) are getting from us in early childhood, in Head Start and mental health services,” she said.

“We may have a hypothesis that a combination of programs creates better outcomes … but we can’t prove it
until the data is linked.”

Starfish has set out to tackle the complex issue by bringing data from all of the disparate systems into a single, master record system that will enable it to see all of the programs a child or family is receiving through the agency, success indicators across them and family relationships. That, in turn, will enable it to better identify causative factors and gaps in service. It’s committed $2 million and three to five years to develop and roll out the new, child and family master record system, a data warehouse that will enable it to report out data to funders and dashboards to track sets of data.

Starfish, which is operating on a $46 million budget for fiscal 2019, is funding the costs of the
new system from its reserves and unrestricted operating funds. It expects to more than recoup its investment by the time it’s fully rolled out the new system in 2022.

“We see this as an investment in something we have to do in order to achieve our mission and
our family-centric view,” Kalass said. “As a sector, to have the impact we want, we need capacity investments that make our programs work.”

First and foremost, the goal with the new, master record system is to improve services to families and to make it easier for staff to provide those services, said Kirsten Mack, director of value acceleration. Starfish has contracted with Boulder, Colorado-based Global Data Strategy Ltd. to develop the new child master record system. It’s spent the past year and a half establishing data governance to ensure all data entered across the nonprofit and its programs will be consistent.

That includes everything from who will enter data and be able to access data to how it will be structured, Mack said. For example, it might mean designating someone’s race as “white,” for example, vs. “Caucasian,” or using numerical birth dates rather than spelling out months so that the system can read all data.

Starfish is also working to establish an organization wide data warehouse where it can report out on all of the data from the disparate systems. All of the data from the master record system gets put into the warehouse.

“That’s how we can see holistic data … and report out on it,” Mack said.

The agency has entered its first set of data, behavioral health information, into the data warehouse and is producing weekly updates that track completion of required documentation for clients or progress toward targets for clients through “dashboards” or visual representations of data that Mack and her team liken to a car’s instrument panel. The gas gauge, for example, might show progress toward an enrollment target for the number of children in an early childhood education program on a dashboard, she said. Staff are notified of weekly dashboard updates by email and can log into the system to access the latest progress reports. Data governance and the data warehouse will form the foundation for establishing the child and family master record.

“Our plan is by this time next year to have the master record system launched,” Mack said.

From that point, it’s expected to take another one to three years to be fully implemented where data is entered into the master system and pushed out to the other funder systems for reporting purposes.

Just a year and a half in to development of the new system, Starfish is already seeing cost savings as it changes how it manages data. The automation of some data management led to the elimination of one full-time position that’s expected to save about $100,000 a year, Kalass said.

More efficient data entry is also freeing staff up to spend more time working with clients, and that’s increased billable revenue, Mack said. And the weekly dashboard updates on required behavioral health documentation has increased the number of claims paid, which is starting to produce more revenue on that front. By the time the new system is fully online in 2022, cost savings and increased revenue from the more efficient system are projected to add up to $2.5 million, Mack said.