NTEN’s Community of Impact Finds Peers Still Struggling to Make Data Impactful

By Andrew Means, YMCA of Metro Chicago

The question of how nonprofits use data is swirling around professional organizations throughout the sector. Everyone is talking about data. What can we do with is? What should we do with it? How can we use it? What does it mean for our sector?

Despite all of this interest we have very little idea what organizations are actually doing with data, and why they are doing it.

NTEN’s Communities of Impact recently conducted a small survey (n=69) of nonprofit professionals asking how their organizations are engaging with data. We are now in the process of conducting follow-up surveys, and a few interesting insights have begun to emerge.

  • The “why”: As with much in the nonprofit sector, funding is the driving force behind the decision to collect data. Nearly 75% of respondents said that they collect data to report back to funders. Another 75% said that they collect data for program evaluation purposes, which is often done as either a funding requirement or a way to attract new funding.
  • The “why not”: Many organizations are struggling to collect data. The culprits are unsurprising as well: the top three challenges cited are lack of time, lack of money, and lack of training.
  • The “who”: To me, the most illuminating survey results have to do with who is being made responsible for data in nonprofit organizations. The vast majority of organizations reported that program staff decide what to measure, what it means, and are in charge of the capture, management, and sharing of data. Yet, as this Stanford Social Innovation Review article points out, data analysis is difficult and requires significant social science training – let alone the technical training necessary for the storage and sharing of data. Can we really expect all of our program staff to be equipped to run high quality programs, be data collection experts, and know how to analyze complex data in ways that lead to program improvement?

We asked nonprofit professionals why their organizations don’t collect data. Here are the top reasons they cited.

The survey seems to reveal a sector struggling to figure out how data fits. We are limited by resources, training, and technology. (The number one reported data storage tool was Excel. That fact alone betrays our sector’s lack of sophistication when it comes to thinking about data.)

But the problem might also be with the word itself. Data is not any single thing. When you talk data with development professionals, they often think of giving history and campaign metrics. With someone from marketing, the conversation might veer toward click-through rates or even market segmentation analysis. With someone from the programs team, their minds might jump to program evaluation or assessments. And on and on.

Data in and of itself, in its raw and pure form, is not useful. Data is like crude oil: extremely valuable, but only because of what you can do with it. Untouched, unmanipulated, unchanged, it’s valueless, but once transformed it can serve any number of purposes.

The nonprofit sector is still trying to figure out how to transform its data into something valuable. Nonprofit leaders need to continue to mature and invest in the resources necessary to help their staff navigate this process.

Through our follow-up interviews and a series of resources to be developed over the course of this year, we hope to give nonprofit professionals some tools and examples to speed this process along. Stay tuned!

Andrew Means is a member of the 2013 Communities of Impact and a Performance Improvement Analyst at the Chicago YMCA (learn about his team’s work via this case study). Andrew is also organizing a conference called Do Good Data in Chicago this August.