Nonprofit Data: The Case of Neighbors, Inc.

A Minnesota nonprofit manages varying degrees of comfort with data across multiple programs and staff.

  • St. Paul, MN
  • 13 Staff
  • 1,000 Volunteers

With a $1 million budget, Neighbors, Inc., runs a food shelf that serves more than 400 families a month, a secondhand clothing store and 14 other programs that reach a variety of clientele with services aimed at reducing poverty, promoting self-sufficiency and building community. The various programs offer a number of opportunities to collect and track data to better manage services and improve outcomes, and the nonprofit wisely decided to take advantage of those opportunities by hiring a director of development with a passion—and a mandate—for data.

They found the right person for the job in Rick Birmingham, a self-professed ‘data enthusiast’ who had been consulting for the organization for years. As he settles into his new role full-time, hes made it a priority to consolidate data practices with the hope of making them more consistent in the process.

Rick said he believes Neighbors tracks a lot more about clients than most similar organizations, resulting in a lot of data—that’s the good news. The bad? It still has a long way to go in terms of making data part of the process and workflow, instead of an afterthought.

“We could also be a lot better at turning that data into actionable information,” he said.

Its unusual for an organization the size of Neighbors to have a data person on staff, Rick said, and sometimes he fears his level of experience isnt up to the task. On occasion I think Ive even moved the needle the other way, he said. But he sees working for an organization that recognizes the value of data as a step in the right direction, and said the sheer amount of data it collects gives Neighbors a head start.

Of the various programs, the food shelfs data practices are the most rigorous.

“For instance, we track all the services people receive and when they receive them, but also the addresses where they receive those services,” he said, which helps him to prevent overlap or duplication—for example, if a child lives with each of his parents separately, moving back and forth between their homes, Neighbors can ensure the food is going to the right location and that its limited supplies arent misdirected or wasted.

The organization also tracks demographics of those receiving services from its bigger programs, as well as the demographics of their family members. Not all programs collect the same rigorous data as the food shelf. For example, Neighbors runs a bakery shelf that provides bread, dented canned food and other things that cant be sold, and interested recipients need only sign their name to get foodno other information is required.

In addition to client data from the food shelf, store and 14 other programs, the organization tracks donor-related data. “Donors, donations, campaigns, events, and other things like that,” Rick said. “I came onboard six months ago, so I’m sort of in the early stages of figuring out all the basics—who’s making donations and when, how much, response rate to appeals, things like that. They were doing a very good job tracking donor and donations, but there is room for better analysis of campaigns, appeals, and events.”

The organization recently launched a blog, and Rick’s been tracking readership—who responds to which appeals, for example—in an effort to tailor future efforts on the site. It’s the first real step forward into communications data. “We don’t have a lot of people participating over the web or Facebook or Twitter or other online communications,” he said, “but we’ve got decent tracking of who’s clicking on what, who’s reading what, etc. That wasn’t always here, that’s new.”

While Neighbors seems to excel at the volume of data it gathers, he said, he’s been identifying issues with workflow, the collection process itself, and how that data is managed and used.

“We suffer from having disparate systems,” he said—”different programs tracking different things”. Relationships and contacts, development prospects, community leaders and supporters are all tracked in Salesforce, and client information is tracked internally in an Access database. Clients provide the information as part of the intake process on their initial visits, and through abbreviated intakes on repeat visits. Staff collects it on paper and later enters it manually into the database.

He’s working with staff to improve those areas, and he’s helping guide the organizations data efforts in new directions, too.

“We’re not sophisticated users at all, but were building,” he said. “We’re building systems for tracking grants, relatively simple. Another large project is improving our CRM capabilities for everyone from our vendors to people who have done food drives for us. It’s backfilling data, for the most part.”

“We have another tool that’s very simple, but its significant,” he said. “We track when someone makes a food donation, who they are, and how much food they’re donating.”

Collecting that much data can put a strain on an organization if the staff isn’t sold on the idea. And while the value of data has worked it’s way into some parts of the culture at Neighbors—especially the administration—other areas have proved tougher to sell.

“One of the biggest challenges,” he said, “is that the nonprofit relies on an army of volunteers rather than staff. We’ve got about 15 staff, about 15 part-time, and 1,000 volunteers that do 30,000 hours of work,” he said. “All our direct services other than interviewing people for the food shelf is done by volunteers. Because many of them have been with the organization for a long time—some as long as 40 years—they’re sometimes reluctant to change the way they do things.”

“In addition, because some roles are filled by different volunteers every day of the week, there’s a great variance in understanding the value of data,” Rick said. “Many of these volunteers have no concept whatsoever about data, because it’s not part of their day-to-day work. But that’s not true everywhere—at the food shelf, for example, everyone there gets it.”

It’s also good on the donation side—”they understand the need to be correct, and to collect data, but don’t always understand how that becomes information,” he said. “They’re super receptive to it, though.”

Moving forward, Rick said he’d like to gradually consolidate the various disparate systems Neighbors currently uses.

“I have five different systems and were going to have to figure that out,” he said. “I’d really like to track time and where we’re spending it in order to do analysis of services and things like that,” he said. “For example, we could more accurately track staff hours spent on specific programs or aspects of programs. And we’re not doing enough to track our services longer-term. That’s definitely something to be working toward.

He’d also like to improve the organizations ability to report on all the data it gathers by automating the process instead of manually generating reports in Excel, and to build or strengthen ties to external data sources and systems, as data-sharing with other service providers could help prevent clients from double-dipping services.

Still, he said, those are all good problems to have—with a board and an executive director that understand the value of data, the rest of it will follow.

“We’re not there, I’m sure,” he said. “But it’s just a matter of time. We’re getting there.”

This case study is part of the research project in 2012 conducted by NTEN with the help of Idealware. See the State of Nonprofit Data report for more information about how nonprofits are–and aren’t–making data part of their decision-making processes, and the key challenges that affect an organization’s ability to be more effectively “data-driven.”

Chris Bernard