Four Ways Nonprofits Can Increase Their Impact with Data

Submitted by Holly on Mon, 05/02/2011 - 10:54am

By Holly Ross, Executive Director, NTEN

Funders and donors alike have been chanting the same mantra recently: prove it. The increasing pressure on your nonprofit not just to do good work, but to prove your impact – coupled with the increasing use of databases and online services – has led to exponential growth in data within the nonprofit sector. 

While we are capturing more stats and indicators than ever before, most of us are still a little befuddled as to what to do with all these numbers. Data management will be one of the most important skills in our sector over the next decade, with implications that reach far beyond simply understanding our own organizations.

I'd like to offer four areas we need to address to make the most of our data and increase our impact.

1. Know What Data You Have and What it Means.

Here's a common scenario: a program staffer strides into the ED's office full of nervous energy. "We have a problem," she announces. "We're down 3%!"

For many of us, this scene is followed by the questions "Why?" and "What should we do about it?" Our natural inclination is to try to fix things when we hear the words "down" or "decrease" – or to pat ourselves on the back and do nothing if we hear "up" or "increase" followed by a number and a percentage sign.

But the reality is that a single statistic, on its own, rarely tells the whole story. If we are going to be data-driven organizations, we have to understand what the data REALLY tells us. Both leadership and front-line staff need to invest in basic statistical analysis training so we can ask the right questions and seek the right kinds of data before launching into solution mode or resting on our laurels. 

2. Give Your Data More Meaning

The kinds of problems we address in the nonprofit sector are not simple. No single organization can solve poverty in a community, yet we tend to focus only on our own data when evaluating our future, current, or past work.

To better understand what our data means, especially as it relates to the impact we’re trying to make, we need to contextualize our own data with outside sources. Thanks in large part to President Obama's open government initiative, every federal department must make data about its work available to the general public.

For years, census and federal housing data have been freely available on the web. 

How might your perception of your work change if you mapped your organization's service areas over low income housing geographies?

3. Make Your Data Tell Stories

Your data is an incredible storytelling tool, with the power to sway the public and engage supporters. The problem is, most of its storytelling power is usurped by the Excel charts that typically imprison it. 

We've got to get better at visualizing our data in compelling ways. It's one thing to say the obesity rate in your county is 21%, quite another to share a "Gluttony" score (among the other deadly sins):

Using our data to its fullest advantage is going to help us advance our causes in more meaningful ways.

4. Share Your Data

Again, we know we can’t solve the problems our organizations are working on in isolation, each of us working steadily, but alone. It's going to take a coordinated effort – and that means we have to share more than work plans.

We have to share our data.

Sharing anything is hard, and data sharing has more traps and tribulations than most kinds of sharing. There are privacy and security concerns, not to mention the enormous feeling of ownership and protection we all feel about our most vital asset.

But when groups collaborate to share data, we get a much better picture about what our communities need – and how we’re meeting those needs. This example from the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas shows us the promise of sharing data about service areas:

As nonprofits, data is our most important asset. It can tell us what we’ve accomplished, and used wisely, it can show us where we need to go in the future.