January 7, 2013

Nonprofit Data: The Case of the Arcus Foundation

  • New York/Kalamazoo, MI/Cambridge, UK
  • 25 Staff

The Arcus Foundation focuses it’s grant making on two areas: social justice and conservation. The Foundation has 25 staff members spread across offices in New York City and Cambridge, UK and Kalamazoo, Michigan. In social justice, the foundation is particularly interested in global lesbian, gay bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) rights; in conservation, Arcus’ focus is on the protection of the great apes and their habitats.

Arcus uses data in a number of ways to advance both missions, according to Grants Management Associate Kerry Ashforth, and looks to other organizations in its field—including the grantees that rely on the foundation for funding—to help guide it through the process of establishing and refining its data practices.

Kerry said the Foundation has been participating “to an extraordinary degree” in efforts to improve the knowledge it gathers through data collection, and the process involves adapting to what works and tweaking what proves not to.

“There are a lot of questions,” he said. “We haven’t cracked a lot of these nuts yet—we’re still struggling with it. We’re in a transitional time where management of data is starting to be the core skill for doing grant making work effectively. There’s a big gap between skills needed and skills owned, and a bit of a learning curve, but I think were in good company—we might have a lot to learn from our nonprofit partners that are doing this well.”

One way Arcus uses data is to assess how well a grant under consideration might perform in terms of “moving the needle,” both in terms of the immediate grant and the bigger picture of the overall mission.

“We try to assess not only whether that project will succeed, but we are also interested in the health and capability of the organization itself and, how it fits into a field of organizations,” Kerry said. “It’s been an incredibly iterative process.”

“Ideally what we want to have in place, and what we have in place, is an overarching strategy for each of our impact areas,” he said. “We use data differently on each side of the house, and each program is in a different stage of evolution. The great apes program is an environmental, science-driven focus that incorporates economic development and sustainable industry—things that are measurable in many ways.”

“The great apes program is currently at the midpoint of a five-year strategy arc. Along the way, the team has developed some different understandings about data and how to gather it,” he said. The conservation program has what he called an “incredibly evolved evaluative framework” that will lead to success conserving the great apes, with a longer-term strategy that includes benchmarks and indicators of success.

“There are many different types of measures for what were trying to achieve,” he said. “You can track protected range, number of great apes in concrete things, but you can also look at social change and economic development. We’re gathering a lot of data on the organizations and the field itself. We’ve got indicators that reflect progress along different axes, and we place that information into the context of our strategic framework. Along the way, and at the end of this five-year stage, well look again and see if we need to adapt what we are measuring.”

The social justice team is still developing a methodology for identifying the data it will need to collect and the indicators that must be tracked to make sure Arcus is meeting its mission.

“With social justice work, it can seem a little more amorphous, and can feel incredibly broad and difficult to narrow down,” Kerry said. “We’ve been making many different kinds of grants through that program, doing movement-building work, policy change work, capacity-building grants, etc. Our task is to figure out which bits of data are the bellwether data for each type of grant.”

“As part of the overall data strategy, the foundation involves grantees in the process to build consensus around our goals, and to confirm that we are moving in the right direction, and looking at the best indicators of forward movement,” he said. “We’re in our 12th year of operation. When we started out, we asked for more basic information. As we’ve continued to make grants and learn from them, and to build strategies and evaluate their success, new questions have emerged. It’s definitely changed the kinds of data were looking for.”

By involving grantees, Arcus not only improves the quality of data thats tracked and analyzed—it also frees the grantees from unnecessarily onerous reporting and tracking requirements, which allows them to devote more time to advancing their own missions.

“There’s value in having streamlined processes and trying to not be overly burdensome, Kerry said. There’s value to all involved in prioritizing the data we require so that were not being needlessly demanding.”

There’s another good reason to involve grantees: in many cases, they’re the boots-on-the-ground people doing the actual work toward the overall mission.

“The partners were working with know an incredible amount about this work,” he said. “They’ve been able to not only answer our questions, but also to help us learn what we need to know. We’re learning to ask better, more productive questions. I’m hoping well reach a point where were able to share this grant-related data in a way that helps the fields in which we work great apes conservation, social justice, and the philanthropic sector.”

Arcus is doing a lot with data, but Kerry said theres a lot of room for growth and improvement. “Grants management falls under organizational learning and evaluation at Arcus,” he said. “We are currently working toward building an organization-wide knowledge-management system, and we’re reviewing the landscape of tools and products out there. The Arcus Foundation is going through a process that I can see a lot of our grantees struggling with—we’re struggling with it ourselves.”

“Arcus is a small organization. We want to make sure our operating costs are manageable so were not eating into grant money. It takes a long time. We’ve been working on our data systems for quite a number of months. The process moves forward, but not at a rate we’d like, because so many questions come up, and answering them is important. Ultimately we want to achieve our mission, and we need to know if were doing that.”

The Foundations board of directors monitors evidence of progress toward that change, Kerry said. “We actually believe that the investment in our new system will be more than offset by the gain in results.” With limited resources, Arcus wants to make smart decisions about how to use them not just to make grants, but to make grants with the most impact.

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