The Need for a New Direction on Data
Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) are constantly taking in data from a variety of sources but most of the information that is collected is rarely synthesized or utilized. Many lack the skills or data tools for collecting and storing information accurately and efficiently. And, with nonprofits focusing on fulfilling their social mission, time and proper staff are rarely available to take on the gargantuan task of collecting and storing appropriate data, let alone analyzing and making data workable for practical use. Consequently, NPOs typically only interact with their data when preparing financial statements and reporting mandatory evaluation data to funders. These brief interactions mean NPOs are missing opportunities to utilize data toward improving programs for the betterment of the organization and those it serves.
Most organizations understand the importance of their data but are overwhelmed just thinking of having to build efficient data infrastructure, and often don’t have the skills to conduct useful analysis on their own data, let alone share and synthesize data with partners.
So how would organizations that have no time or data expertise organize, track and make their data more accessible?
And who would set out to initiate, and drive change on how NPOs think about, collect, categorize, analyze and apply data in their programming and decision-making.
Assessing Non-Profits’ Data Management
The need was clear to the DigitalC team in 2018 when they partnered with Microsoft and the Foundation Center Midwest to launch the Data Maturity Survey Project. Based on the framework from DataKind and Data Orchid (in the United Kingdom) that measures nonprofits efficiency and effectiveness in using their data, DigitalC set out to recreate a similar survey. Their goal – to understand the specific data needs of nonprofit organizations in Cuyahoga County, with an eye towards creating specialized interventions to allow non-profits to rise through the continuum of data maturity, and become better users and stewards of their data.
In June 2017, DigitalC administered surveys to nonprofit organizations in Cuyahoga County for a two-month period and received responses from over 150 organizations. After the data was collected, it needed to be cleaned and analyzed by DigitalC consultant, Elizabeth Larkin.
Larkin then spent several months working with accounting consulting firm Wipfli, to design and deploy a dynamic reporting website where organizations could login, review, and analyze their own survey results and compare them to the results of similar organizations within the county. (This website was launched in January). The data was then combined into an aggregate database of Cuyahoga County NPOs in order to create an overall profile of Data Maturity in Cuyahoga County, so funders and intervention providers could better understand the needs and challenges faced by local NPOs. A report summarizing these findings was published on DigitalC’s website in mid-March.
Through her county-wide analysis, Larkin discovered that most nonprofit organizations, regardless of size, sector, age or financial profile, are struggling with data maturity. Organizations with large staff and seemingly plentiful resources still struggle with all aspects of data maturity; brand new organizations, founded when data tools are the norm in the business sector, are not any more data savvy than organizations founded decades ago; and NPOs in sectors that rely heavily on data (like healthcare) have little advantage when it comes to most aspects of data maturity.
While the survey reveals a wealth of information, the most striking need among non-profit organizations is to improve the data skills of their staff and provide them with modern tools needed to accurately and efficiently collect, house, analyze, and use their data.
NPOs report that their organizations greatly value data and that their leadership supports it, but the survey reveals that they may not be data-savvy enough to accurately assess their current data needs, which is a major barrier to improvement. This survey is an important first step in providing the data necessary for organizations to understand where further investments are necessary. It also provides Microsoft and Foundation Center Midwest with critical information needed to create programs, workshops, and classes designed to meet NPOs where they are at and provide a coherent path forward for NPOs committed to improving their data maturity, in all aspects of their organization.
After completing her analysis, Larkin presented her report and findings at the recently held Data Days event as part of a panel exploring “Data for Impact,” where the findings were discussed and attendees were encouraged to explore the survey results on DigitalC’s website and make use of the report’s findings.
Data Days and Data Maturity
To drive dialogue and problem solving around data and civic engagement, Data Days was created to bring together and connect community members for panels and conversations around the advocacy for data to be accessible and efficiently and effectively used.
This year’s Data Days event took place at on the Case Western Reserve University campus. The event hosted a variety of panels that discussed the intersection between data and number of topics including governance, water security and environmental impacts on community.
During the panel on “Data for Impact: Lessons from the Field,” Elizabeth Larkin presented on the findings of the data maturity survey. The panel came together to highlight the current state of data maturity among NPOs in Cuyahoga County and discuss potential solutions and existing resources available to address the data challenges NPOs face.
Continuing the Course + Championing Change
Now that Data Days has ended and the work that Larkin has been focused on is nearing its completion, the next phase of the Data Maturity Project and the move to assist nonprofits in changing how they interact with their data is just beginning. The Data Maturity Project has unearthed a widespread issue that most nonprofits face regardless of sector, size or age.
“Often the initial barrier NPOs face when dealing with data is that they don’t know what they don’t know – especially when their professional peers are all struggling with the same issues,” explained Larkin, “That makes it very hard to figure out how to move forward, even when an organization wants to make data-improvement a priority. This survey helps NPOs over that first barrier, by handing them the objective self-assessment data they need to chart their path towards becoming data-mature organizations.”
So what’s next for data maturity in the nonprofit space?
Project Partner Microsoft along with the Foundation Center Midwest/Guidestar have stepped up to continue the work that DigitalC started. In reflecting on the impact of the Data Maturity Survey project and Microsoft’s dedication to advocate for data empowerment, Warren Flood, Corporate Affairs Manager from the Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburg Microsoft Cities Team said:
The Data Maturity Project can potentially queue up efficient delivery of impactful interventions at scale, which would help nonprofits embrace, harness, and unleash the power of their data. The Data Maturity Project also provides us at Microsoft a useful framework to distill the ecosystem's needs and priorities as we seek ways to further assist and empower nonprofits along their digital transformations.
The foundation and framework have been built with the long-term goal that interventions can take place, guiding and supporting nonprofits as they seek to build the needed infrastructure and expertise to better manage and utilize their data.
Said Larkin on the conclusion of her work and what’s next, “Hopefully, this survey will be just the beginning of the discussion about what we can do to support nonprofits in leveraging data and technology to better fulfill their missions and maximize their positive impact in their communities.”
To download a copy of the Cuyahoga County Data Maturity Summary Report go to: https://www.digitalc.org/s/CC-NPO-Data-Maturity-Survey-Report-1.pdf
If you would like to see a sample of the individual NPO report and view county-wide answers to specific questions, visit the Data Maturity Survey Report website at: https://datamaturityb2c.azurewebsites.net/
For more information about DigitalC and other programs and projects visit: https://www.digitalc.org/