Improve your Nonprofit’s Data Usage in 2018

By: Kauser Razvi and Cherie Chung

Nonprofits, funders, donors, and beneficiaries need to focus on strategic investment and impact using data from a variety of sources. Questions many nonprofits are asking include; how do we become more data driven, and how do we use data to make decisions and design programs? 2018 just started. It's not too early to begin thinking about how to improve your use of data this new year. Here are examples of where you can start.

1. Reflect on the questions you are asking to inform data collection.

Organizations often know the basic questions they need to answer and posses the data to answer those questions. To be a data driven organization, however, you may want to begin asking different questions. Below are prompts to reflect on as you think about data:

  • Are you solely collecting data for descriptive reporting or are you collecting data for organizational effectiveness? You may need to change your data collection practices and methods of evaluation to improve your organizations’ performance. You may also want to ask if you have processes in place to use data. More importantly, think about if you are able to act on new knowledge to make positive changes.
  • Is your organization ready to start asking exploratory questions and begin predictive analysis in order to drive impact? If yes, think about the questions you know want to ask, and how you can develop an iterative process to inform data collection and analysis. Again, you need to consider how to use the data to make informative changes. Have a process in place to close the loop.

By reviewing the questions you’re posing and evaluating how you want to use your data, you can begin to set a data agenda and can create buy-in for using data in more nuanced ways within your organization.

2. Review the data you collect.

This sounds simple, but many organizations, are unsure of what data they have access to, even within their own organization.  Sometimes this is due to information silos. Other times, it is a result of data not being collected in a usable format or not simply, not being collected at all. Lastly, organizations may require data from other entities to complete or enrich the analysis, but are unsure how to access that information. Here are places to start when reviewing your data:

  • Intake or client data - Are you consistently collecting information on the basic population to which your services are being provided?  Is that information stored consistently and correctly? Is this good, quality information? Can it be used as the base of your system? Intake data is often key to answering even the most basic descriptive questions of your work.

  • Outcomes data - Collecting outcomes data is a great baseline for any nonprofit to better understand their work. Every nonprofit should try to get an accurate measure of their outputs and inputs. For example, if your nonprofit is an education program, you will collect data on how many people your nonprofit is serving every month/quarter/year. This is your output. You would also collect data on how much money your nonprofit is spending per year, in the form of your budget, including line items for nonprofit spending.

  • External Data- What publically available data could we use to enrich the analysis? Could knowing census tract information, health data, or school data help better explain your impact and/or help you seek grant funding? What other organizational data might be helpful? Do you partner with anyone that would be willing to provide better insight into their data?

These questions are tricky but a thorough attempt to answer them will keep your organization honest and will help you understand what you can do to strengthen your actual impact on the community.


3. Telling the Stories

It’s also incredibly important to capture qualitative information - the human stories behind the work being done. These stories can help inform your strategy, offer perspectives, deepen the understanding of your audience, and better describe who is benefiting from the services you provide.

  • Is there data (quantitative) you have that may give insight into a group that has higher than average results for this type of work?  As an option, work with your communications and marketing team to document the journeys of individuals you serve to tell both the quantitative and qualitative elements of the story.

  • Are there ways to you can leverage data to tell better stories?  Rather than just showing a bar chart or histogram, do you have data with which you can create an interactive map? Are there different populations within the data that show interesting trends? Use tools like Tableau or PowerBI to embed visualizations on your organization's website and marketing materials to showcase how data is being weaved into the stories your organization is telling.

Whether your organization is just starting to improve its data collection, or if it's advancing to automatic data collection, reporting, and analytics, these tips can keep your organization focused on how and why they use data. It is important to reflect on, and review the data you collect in order to better understand what data supports your mission and how to use data to tell compelling stories. For more approaches to data, sign up for DigitalC’s in-person Data Workshop with The Learning Studios HERE