The Power of Data, Part 1: How Data Can Benefit Your Nonprofit Organization

I am a huge data nerd and the people at my job know it.

It’s not so much about the numbers (math was never my strong suit), but it fascinates me that we can capture bits of information, crunch, dissect and organize it, and use that to build a bigger picture. I’ll gladly spend hours over a spreadsheet than on Facebook any day.

One reason that I get so giddy about data is because of its potential for social impact. A thoughtful data strategy can help organizations understand their constituents, the problems that they face, and the best ways to address those concerns. 

The second reason I’m gung ho about data is because of what it can do for our own personal growth. In addition to working on a more global scale, data can also make us better workers and more productive humans.

Here’s the first of my two-part series on how data can help organizations and individuals in their careers.

 Implementing a data strategy requires special consideration, care, and time. When done correctly, nonprofits & community agencies can use data to make sense of:


1. Constituent demographics

Say your nonprofit provides housing to homeless youth in your district. Do these youth tend to be in their early teens or later? What about their ethnic and cultural makeup? Are your program recipients both heterosexual and LGBTQ youth? By employing data to answer these types of questions, agencies can drill down to see who it is that they’re serving (and who they’re not).


2. Behavioral Information

Understanding how your target community behaves is pivotal to your strategy. Do homeless youth congregate in specific places where you can try to engage them? Are there risk factors that make it more likely for a teen to become homeless, like drug use or dropping out of school? Figuring out how your constituents behave can help you to 1) identify the best access points for reaching them and 2) build sound interventions to meet their needs.


3. Programs & Impact

You can’t know if something works without having the proper measures in place. What percentage of your target community does your organization serve? How long do participants tend to stick with the program before they see success? How many of them don’t? What is success and how do constituents talk about their experience? There are many metrics you can put in place to determine if your program is doing what it was intended to do.


4. Internal efforts

This is data inquiry that extends across your organization. Which of your team’s fundraising initiatives yields the largest number of gifts? How much of your annual budget are you spending per program recipient? What is the turnover rate for your staff? Data can help nonprofits gauge the effectiveness of internal efforts in meeting goals and acting on the larger mission.

Tip: If you don’t know where to start with any of this, I find it helps to step away with a pen & paper to reflect. First, jot down your organization’s goals and your team’s role. Then start writing: things you want to know about your efforts, things you may already know, and questions. (Absolutely write those questions.) By putting thoughts to paper, you’re building a base for the work going forward.


Now that we have some idea of how data can help our work, where do we go from here?


I. Start small.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you’re starting from scratch or have a minimal strategy already in place, then it will take time to build out a seamless, comprehensive data process. Start with the little things that are intuitive and easy to measure, and then grow from there.


II. Seek help.

Before you dive in, do some research. See how other organizations measure their success, either by perusing their website or reaching out directly. (In my experience, it’s amazing to see how forthcoming nonprofits can be when it comes to helping out their peers!) Once you’re willing to make the financial investment, you can also seek out consultants or begin looking for a data expert to join your staff.

Tip: Check out Eventbrite, Foundation Center or your state nonprofit association for webinars, workshops and talks geared towards nonprofit data staff. (And if your organization happens to use Salesforce, they have over 40 nonprofit user groups across the country.)


III. Gain consensus.

If you’re not the head of your organization, then you’ll need to get on the same page with your leadership team about this new process. Leadership sets the mission and vision, so it’s important that they’re on board with what you’re collecting, the reasons why, and the desired outcomes. Furthermore, it’s important that they take ownership. This sends the message to staff that this data initiative is a priority, and will help to hold relevant team members accountable.


IV. Look before you leap.

A poorly thought-out data strategy, or an overly ambitious one, will hinder your efforts more than it will help. Take time to really think through what you hope to learn from a new data strategy, what your team can realistically commit towards its upkeep, and which systems to put in place for managing this information.

Tip: Remember to always look at data through a human lens, especially when you’re thinking about collection or what that data might suggest about your constituents. As powerful as data can be, it does not have the power to tell someone else’s story.


V. Know the limits of what you’re working with.

The only thing more important than knowing what your data says about a subject, is knowing what it’s not saying. Be cautious when making assumptions, because your data is only as good as your collection process (and no process is ever truly perfect). It can sound counterintuitive, but seeking to understand those limits doesn’t have to invalidate your findings. It can actually help to refine and improve your process for the future, and is undoubtedly the responsible thing to do.

Tip: Correlation does not equal causation! While this conjecture is normally applied to academic research, it’s a lesson worth noting. ANY time you see a potential relationship between two sets of data (be it with your nonprofit’s work, or even on the news!), remember that one thing does not necessarily cause the other to happen.


This post only scratches the surface on the ways that data can benefit an organization. But if your organization is just beginning to have that conversation, then these avenues and tactics are well worth your consideration.

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