Creating a Data-first Mindset

The Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals has built a robust research program that benefits members and the association alike.

By Matt Schur

FRM 012 CaseStudy

Data is at the forefront of everything we do today — an idea the Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals (ANFP) understands at the very core of its mission. Within the past decade, the organization ramped up from having scant research initiatives to producing nearly a dozen major reports every year.

One of the goals — then and now — was to be viewed as authoritative in the industry. “To be seen as experts in healthcare foodservice and food safety elevates our members and our certificate holders, which underlies why we pursued certain data initiatives,” says LeAnn Barlow, MBA, vice president, strategic initiatives and analytics, ANFP.

Getting to this point has been a methodical journey and a priority for President and CEO Joyce Gilbert, PhD, RDN, during her tenure of leading the association. “Ultimately what we’ve been trying to do — and have been successful in doing — is raising the value proposition of our members,” Dr. Gilbert says. “Because if our members are the ones in the field with the best practices, then they’re the most employable and knowledgeable. And then they can better care for their patients and clients.”

That value proposition has been the end game for ANFP. But in doing so, ANFP has realized numerous other benefits, including helping the board make more informed decisions about the association’s overall direction.

“If our members are the ones in the field with the best practices, then they’re the most employable and knowledgeable. And then they can better care for their patients and clients.” — Joyce Gilbert, PhD, RDN, president and CEO, ANFP

Now in the eighth year of its data program, ANFP’s research arm is flourishing — and only expanding.

A New Vision

ANFP is composed of three entities: ANFP, which acts as the parent entity and is a 501(c)(6); a certifying board, which is also a 501(c)(6); and the Nutrition and Foodservice Education Foundation (NFEF), which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. (Barlow is also the executive director of NFEF.) ANFP has more than 15,000 members, with a goal of providing the best nutritional care through foodservice management. Roughly 80% of members are in some form of healthcare, whether that’s long-term care, acute care, nursing homes or assisted living.

Prior to joining ANFP, Dr. Gilbert was the executive director of the Marilyn Magaram Center, a non-profit foundation at California State University-Northridge, which focused on research and education in food and nutrition. Equipped with this background when she joined ANFP, Dr. Gilbert felt that the best way to serve the larger food and nutrition industry was through data — first in gathering and analyzing findings, then in converting that information into best practices.

“I brought this vision with me eight years ago,” Dr. Gilbert says. “I really believed in looking at a way to expand the data that was available in the industry. The way we wanted to approach it was to create a data repository by utilizing a large database and then integrate that into our members’ operations. At the same time, I wanted to couple that with digital transformation, which was really about reinventing our members’ value proposition based on the capabilities of the digital technologies that were centered on our numbers.”

The best way to serve the larger food and nutrition industry was through data.

Data wasn’t a priority before Dr. Glibert joined, with ANFP making decisions based largely on history, she says. “Because we have three entities, we have three boards. In order for the boards to make informed decisions, I wanted to make sure they knew what was going on in the industry,” Dr. Gilbert says. “In order to do that, we had to collect data from our own members. I think you make the best-informed decisions when they’re based on data, especially data that has been analyzed by a third party.”

Placing a larger emphasis on data also helped solidify ANFP’s brand. When Dr. Gilbert joined in 2013, the association had just rebranded to ANFP from being the Dietary Managers Association. According to Dr. Gilbert, when the organization rebranded, it lost some identity in the industry. “We really needed a way to get our brand back out into the industry,” Dr. Gilbert says. “Since we no longer had the Dietary Managers Association name, I thought another way to put our foot forward would be to develop something that was valuable to the industry as a whole. And then we can brand through that, and that’s what we’ve done over the last eight years.”

The Distribution Network

ANFP now runs several data-gathering programs, including a skilled nursing benchmarking report, an acute care benchmarking report, a research database that combines ANFP data with national data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and, more recently, a quarterly COVID-19 survey. ANFP often partners with a third party to conduct and analyze surveys, which adds a layer of credibility and accuracy to the findings. “Our thought process is: In order for us to better care for the patients and our clients, we need to have the most accurate data in the industry,” Dr. Gilbert says. “We can convert that data to best practices, and then share those best practices across the healthcare arena, especially in food management and food safety.”

To distribute these findings, ANFP built a robust content marketing program. One of the cornerstones is ANFPtv, a dedicated resource portal that hosts videos and articles, which often highlight research findings. An emphasis is placed on microlearning, particularly videos that are one or two minutes long. “I have to give credit to our director of education, Cindy Zemko,” Dr. Gilbert says. “She really looked at how adults learn. Because of the analytics we collected on our own website, we can see how long they stay engaged. Nine times out of 10, they were buying shorter-information products.”

“When you see people registering to input data for research that’s when you really get the sense they want to get meaningful and actionable data back out.” — LeAnn Barlow, MBA, vice president, strategic initiatives and analytics, ANFP

All this can get quite meta quite quickly: The data about data helped ANFP decide what to do with data. In short: ANFP prioritized a larger quantity of shorter videos while still generating the occasional hour-long webinar or more detailed continuing education that’s needed to maintain certification. “Sometimes they want the full picture, and sometimes it’s just: Hey, it’s Wednesday, my boss is asking for this for tomorrow,” Dr. Gilbert says. “We want ANFP to be a resource for that, as well.”

Members have gobbled it up. Take the topic of labor, which is a constant and major challenge in the foodservice industry, especially within healthcare. ANFP was able to get 1,300 people to participate in its long-term care facility benchmarking report by submitting data about their own jobs. The very act of their participation has been validating. “When you see people registering to input data for research that’s when you really get the sense they want to get meaningful and actionable data back out,” Barlow says.

Through this research program, ANFP was able to ask questions around how certain facilities are recruiting workers, keeping workers employed, what regional issues they face and more. “What our members can do is compare themselves with others working a similar job in the region,” Dr. Gilbert says. It allows members to see if they have the right resources, the right number of full-time staff, the correct food budget, etc. “If you do have the right resources, then great. If not, a member can take that data to their supervisor and say, ‘Hey, I’m in the lowest percentile in the nation.’ That kind of data helps them to be able to make a strong argument for a change in their facility so they can better serve their clients’ health.”

Data Is King

To sort through what the association should cover in these research efforts, the ANFP team paid close attention to what members were talking about online. “I think when you really see your online communities and what people are talking about, what people want to know, the kinds of questions that come in daily to our member services team — that’s where you want to begin,” Barlow says. “You want to start with the data that people are truly wondering about, interested in and can’t seem to get anywhere else.”

ANFP not only works to include non-members in the research, but also offers up many of its findings for free to non-members, as long as they register with an email address. Expanding the program beyond members was important to help strengthen the accuracy and breadth of its data.

When ANFP looked at those conversations, similar questions kept cropping up: What’s the cost of food? How often do you conduct a specific type of training? How long does it take to hire for a specific position? “Because we see those questions all the time, we went ahead and created the skilled nursing facility benchmarking program so people that participate have free access to that data,” Barlow says.

But ANFP was also sure to include non-members in its overall data-minded approach. ANFP not only works to include non-members in the research, but also offers up many of its findings for free to non-members, as long as they register with an email address. Expanding the program beyond members was important to help strengthen the accuracy and breadth of its data. Plus, what’s good for the industry is also good for ANFP, Dr. Gilbert says.

It’s in this vein that ANFP partnered with the CMS database. Dr. Gilbert recognized that while they had good data about members and non-members who had signed up for past research, the CMS database would provide an even greater magnitude of information to work with and share.

Ultimately, ANFP used the CMS database, which pulls information from more than 15,000 facilities, added ANFP’s own data and created a public-facing interactive dashboard to provide an overview of what’s happening in the industry. “We look at it from a perspective of how it can better the industry, either through best practices or through just getting that information out,” Dr. Gilbert says. 

Stronger Together

Building out this platform allowed ANFP to demonstrate its value right away in the pandemic. The infrastructure was in place to immediately start getting data that could help members — in turn building trust and again driving the value proposition of ANFP’s members within the industry. Like most of us, ANFP members had near-infinite questions as the pandemic unfolded last year. What was happening with food safety and labor? What did the supply chain look like? “We wanted to see what kinds of things are being affected by the pandemic,” Barlow says. “We were able to compare and contrast what was happening in the industry and give a heads up of how they can better help and serve the end user.”

“I’ve always felt that, as associations, we’re stronger when we partner with one another.” — Dr. Gilbert

Overall, the feeling within ANFP is that this data program has increased the association’s engagement with the industry. In addition to releasing its own data, ANFP has partnered with multiple other foodservice organizations so they can share services, data and programs. “That’s why we have so many things on our ANFPtv platform that are public-facing,” Dr. Gilbert says. “You know I’d love you to be a member of ANFP. But if you’re not, I want you to be the best person you can be in the foodservice industry.”

Taking this open stance toward data has been helpful in opening doors to partnerships with vendors and exhibitors. And, in general, it draws a wider net of people to ANFP’s website for various reasons: to input data, gain skills for microlearning or build partnerships. “I’ve always felt that, as associations, we’re stronger when we partner with one another,” Dr. Gilbert says. “And this was a very good conduit for us to be able to partner with multiple like organizations across different service areas.”

It’s also helped build sponsorship relationships. ANFP has let sponsors use some of its benchmarking data, which the sponsor can present to its customers. “We’ve had authors take our benchmarking data to create webinars or training materials,” Barlow says. “They’ll feature our data, which helps us grow our program. It also gives the sponsors good data to work with their customers.”

The benefits extend within the realm of ANFP, too. “To me, in order for people to feel that they want to work here, they have to feel that they are a piece of a bigger picture,” Dr. Gilbert says. “And I felt like these programs helped employees see what that bigger picture is. We’re all here because of our members, but we’re also here because of what our members represent in the industry.” 

As it plans for the future, ANFP is looking to integrate the existing benchmarking programs with other larger databases to provide even more robust data. They’re also exploring the creation of an analytics platform to make it easier to comb through data.

For other associations looking to replicate ANFP’s efforts, Barlow recognizes that this program didn’t happen overnight. “I think that’s a big lesson learned: to not overwhelm people with everything all at once,” Barlow says. “Pick an initiative that seems like it will resonate with your members and do that.”  

About the Author

Matt Schur is a Chicago-based writer and editor.

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