Tag: statistics

This post originally appeared on Beaconfire’s blog in May 2014. It is reposted here with permission.

I have some news to share with you: most PDFs on your site don’t get read. Sad but true. The good news is that you’re not alone. World Bank recentlyreleased a report that showed that nearly a third of the reports (in PDF format) on their site were not being downloaded and read. So much effort, so little ROI.

You may wonder if PDFs are even worth the trouble. They actually can be, but there are definite pros and cons to using them on your site.


  • Allow a document to retain a visual design (colors, fonts, style)
  • Are easily printable
  • Highly portable. You can save to your digital library and read later!
  • Facilitate browsing and reading extremely lengthy content
  • Facilitate presentation of highly formatted content – like data tables

  • Difficult to update
  • Much larger file size than a webpage
  • Not inherently searchable

When your organization is renowned for creating lengthy or data-rich print pieces, producing a PDF can be a quick and easy way to share the content. But posting a PDF isn’t always the best – or only – answer. When you’re thinking about creating new content for your site, think of other ways you could present the information: Infographic? Video?

So you’re sure you want a PDF? Ok then…

  • PDFs should not exist in a vacuum. If you’re posting a PDF, it should have a corresponding HTML page that includes, at a minimum, the title, abstract or overview, publication date, and file size with a link to the PDF. Creating a landing page for the PDF will also give external search engines an onramp to index the PDFs and display them in relevant search results.
  • When adding a PDF to your site, include metadata to the file to support it: a title, description, author, creation date, topic tags or keywords.
  • The version of PDF is important, too. Make sure that your PDF creator is packaging files in a relatively recent version for bug fixes and search indexing. You may need to revisit older versions of PDFs and update them.
  • Typical file naming standards should apply: not “123.pdf” but something like “NatureLoversSurveyAnalysis2014.pdf.” The file name should be illustrative of the contents of the PDF. This is good user experience and enhances SEO.
  • Don’t forget to open the PDF to search. Make sure that your onsite search has the ability to index PDF content. Test this out by running some site searches to verify that the content is visible in the results. Indexing PDFs helps your users and also SEO (by making the content visible to external search engines). If you don’t have an onsite search, the onramp pages are even more important to allow external search engines access to PDF content.

What’s in our crystal ball

Two vector-based technologies that are on the horizon may provide an alternative to PDFs: Canvas and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics). These provide the best of both worlds: They have tight visual control, and they are open web standards.  Or will be. SVG has been around for about 13 years but really hasn’t experienced a high adoption rate for everyday web authoring. HTML Canvas is a second alternative. Canvas does provide the feature-rich design capabilities of PDFs, plus it also supports animation; however, as a pure web technology, it requires a web developer to create the markup. Canvas has been around for about four years and, while it shows promise, it hasn’t risen to the ranks and prevalence of PDF documents.

Now you know: Most of the content on your site is not going to be viewed as much as you think it is or would like it to be. If you’re going to expend extra effort on your content, make sure it looks smashing on your site – in whatever format – and that it works for your users.

This post originally appeared in The Guardian on May 24, 2014. It is reposted here with permission from the author.

millerjed_img_1.jpgBlaise Pascal: ‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.’

Mathematician Blaise Pascal famously closed a long letter by apologising that he hadn’t had time to make it shorter. Unfortunately, his pithy point about “download time” is regularly attributed to Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau, probably because the public loves writers more than it loves statisticians. Scientists may make things provable, but writers make them memorable.

The World Bank confronted a similar reality of data journalism earlier this month when it revealed that, of the 1,600 bank reports posted online on from 2008 to 2012, 32% had never been downloaded at all and another 40% were downloaded under 100 times each.

Taken together, these cobwebbed documents represent millions of dollars in World Bank funds and hundreds of thousands of person-hours, spent by professionals who themselves represent millions of dollars in university degrees. It’s difficult to see the return on investment in producing expert research and organising it into searchable web libraries when almost three quarters of the output goes largely unseen.

The World Bank works at a scale unheard of by most organisations, but expert groups everywhere face the same challenges. Too much knowledge gets trapped in multi-page PDF files that are slow to download (especially in low-bandwidth areas), costly to print, and unavailable for computer analysis until someone manually or automatically extracts the raw data.

Even those who brave the progress bar find too often that urgent, incisive findings about poverty, health, discrimination, conflict, or social change are presented in prose written by and for high-level experts, rendering it impenetrable to almost everyone else. Information isn’t just trapped in PDFs; it’s trapped in PhDs.

Governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are beginning to realise that digital strategy means more than posting a document online, but what will it take for these groups to change not just their tools, but their thinking? It won’t be enough to partner with WhatsApp or hire GrumpyCat.

I asked strategists from the development, communications, and social media fields to offer simple, “Tweetable” suggestions for how the policy community can become better communicators.

“For nonprofits and governments that still publish 100-page PDFs on their websites and do not optimise the content to share in other channels such as social: it is a huge waste of time and ineffective. Stop it now.”
– Beth Kanter, author and speaker. Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media

“Treat text as #opendata so infomediaries can mash it up and make it more accessible (see, for example, federalregister.gov) and don’t just post and blast: distribute information in a targeted way to those most likely to be interested.”
– Beth Noveck, director at the Governance Lab and former director at White House Open Government Initiative

“Don’t be boring. Sounds easy, actually quite hard, super-important.”
– Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy 

“Surprise me. Uncover the key finding that inspired you, rather than trying to tell it all at once and show me how the world could change because of it.”
– Jay Golden, co-founder of Wakingstar Storyworks

“For the Bank or anyone who is generating policy information they actually want people to use, they must actually write it for the user, not for themselves. As Steve Jobs said, ‘Simple can be harder than complex’.”
– Kristen Grimm, founder and president at Spitfire Strategies

“The way to reach the widest audience is to think beyond content format and focus on content strategy.” – Laura Silber, director of public affairs at Open Society Foundations

“Open the door to policy work with short, accessible pieces – a blog post, a video take, infographics – that deliver the ‘so what’ succinctly.”
– Robert McMahon, editor at Council on Foreign Relations

“Policy information is more usable if it’s linked to corresponding actions one can take, or if it helps stir debate.  Also, whichever way you slice it, there will always be a narrow market for raw policy reports … that’s why explainer sites, listicles and talking heads exist.”
– Ory Okolloh, director of investments at Omidyar Network and former public policy and government relations manager at Google Africa

Ms Okolloh, who helped found the citizen reporting platform Ushahidi, also offered a simple reminder about policy reports: “‘Never gets downloaded’ doesn’t mean ‘never gets read’.” Just as we shouldn’t mistake posting for dissemination, we shouldn’t confuse popularity with influence.

Groups from London to Santiago to Nairobi are working to bridge the gap between technology and advocacy. Internationally, networks like the Transparency and Accountability Initiative and the Open Knowledge Foundation continue to promote “user-centric” thinking about online tools.

But online or off, the measure of a tool’s value is its usefulness to the people it is meant to reach. Whether your particular jargon calls them users, readers, audiences, customers, or beneficiaries, their needs must be the blueprint of your strategy. By that measure, Pascal’s comment has turned out to be pretty effective: No one remembers the letter, most even forget the author, but his postscript has been steadily liked, shared, and used since 1657.

The latest studies on social media demographics show what we’ve already known for a long time: women dominate social media use. But hidden between the lines are significant areas that reveal how women dominate men in this niche. We’re not just talking about the total number of social media users—more women use the top social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest than men—but how women use these sites in various ways.

Consolidating data from the studies by Pew, Nielsen, and Burst Media, an infographic published by FinancesOnline compared how men and women are changing the social media landscape. Two critical things caught our attention: more women access social media via mobile and they drive more traffic to visually-oriented social websites.

The top three fastest growing social networks are Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram, all dominated by women. The gender divide is starkest with Pinterest, where 33% of all online women in the U.S. use the network compared to 8% for all online men. These three sites generated ten million new users apiece over the past twelve months; we expect more visually-oriented social sites to follow this trend, hoping to reach more women. Check out the excerpt from the infographic below, and click on it to view the full infographic.


Image above: excerpt from the infographic, click above to view the full image.

One of the most fascinating applications for the index is the non-profit sector. Intuitively, the non-profit sector seems like the last place you’d see an index. Indexes are, after all, built on value; well-established ones like the Consumer Price Index take a vast array of consumer good prices and pack them into a neat little number, which can then be tracked historically to give us a barometer inflation. But now non-profits are leveraging vast troves of data on elusive but important issues like economic freedom and even quality of life—and it’s changing the way we look at many of our greatest challenges.

To understand how numbers can help non-profits tell better stories and ultimately affect more meaningful change, it’s important to understand some history. It used to be that when non-profits focused on issues like hunger or emergency aid, institutions like UNICEF or the Red Cross often raised awareness and compelled action on issues with accounts of those who needed help. Images of starving children helped drive home a reality that even the most removed audiences found hard to ignore. Need to sound the alarm on climate change? Roll out a photo of a polar bear on a lonely, melting iceberg and you had the ingredients for an old-school non-profit marketing campaign.

Well, not anymore. While images can be powerful, causes have evolved quickly since the dawn of the information age. Audiences have become more educated and far more sophisticated. They also expect a lot more transparency when it comes to understanding the issues. More likely than not, donors won’t be convinced by narratives or anecdotal evidence alone. Cause-driven organizations can’t just ask audiences to take their word for it. For audiences to support a cause, they need two things: to understand it, and to see the evidence for themselves.

Understanding The Issue

To be sure, non-profit organizations have made great headway on the former. MSDS has built a practice around helping cause-driven organizations articulate who they are, what they do, and why they matter with greater eloquence and efficacy. And communicating the cause from a strongly-branded perspective pays dividends with audiences that are increasingly demanding and impatient. To truly scale your impact on an issue, you’ve got to compete for your share of audience mind-space along with everyone else, and the best way to succeed remains delivering a consistent, compelling brand experience that resonates with your audience and effortlessly transforms amateurs into experts.

Supporting the Cause

But what about turning cynics into advocates? That’s where the data comes in: sophisticated audiences demand hard evidence. But therein lies the problem—the more data you present, the more meaningful / less accessible it becomes. This paradox helped spawn the infographic boom: organizations were awash in data, and needed to find a way to package it and make it more appealing. The result has been an explosion in designs integrating qualitative and quantitative content with statistics and data visualizations. Some of these are little more than cosmetic enhancements with colorful icons to decorate the information, but at their best, effective infographics distill complex information and help audiences appreciate a new perspective. There are some great benefits to infographics, but they’re often driven by a narrative, which comes with its own implied point-of-view or agenda. But now, non-profits have discovered a new way to present data and it promises to be even more succinct and useful than the uniquitous infographic.

One advantage of the index is that it simplifies the complex. Indexes harness vast amounts of data across a variety of segments and represent them as a single value. So instead of asking audiences to digest volumes of data, they get the gist in a neat little bite-sized piece. For example, the Yale EPI measures environmental performance for 178 countries across 9 issue areas and 20 different indicators. By itself, the raw data they’ve amassed is all but incomprehensible. But distill all these numbers down to a series of scores via a robust and transparent index methodology, and all the sudden you have an elegant system that allows you to compare apples to apples for a wide variety of criteria.

This leads us to the second key advantage: indexes provide empirical context for complex systems and dynamics—lowering resistance to the facts and resulting in better policies and practices in the process. By themselves, raw statistics don’t mean much. You say that some country put X million tons of C02 into the atmosphere last year? That sounds like a hell of a lot, but as a lay person, I really wouldn’t know. But roll that data into an index score, and you can tell not just how well a certain country is doing right now, but how their performance compares to their peers and their own historical performance. By creating an environment of greater context and useful comparison, organizations unleash the power of data to create competition and promote progress towards meeting our greatest challenges.

As one of our clients once told us, “stories get their interest, but metrics get their buy-in.” Imagery, narrative and anecdotal evidence are an important part of communicating your cause. But when you unleash the meaning behind data with an index that simplifies the complex and create context, you democratize the information and allow your audiences to combine data with their own assumptions and experience and draw their own conclusions. Then the metrics cease to just get buy-in; they tell a story of their own. Now that’s a powerful idea.

To see these ideas in  application, take a closer look at 3 projects MSDS recently helped to produce for non-profit organizations: the Environmental Performance Index for Yale University; the Oil Security Index for SAFE & Roubini Global Economics; and the forthcoming Justice Index for the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School.

Greenpeace’s Mobilisation Lab helps the organization transition into an era of people-powered campaigns. The right set of tools and an active social profile is helping Greenpeace to better support its community with campaigns that are community driven.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Tell us about how the MobLab fits into Greenpeace overall.

Michael Silberman (MS) and Wendee Parker (WP): We exist to help the global Greenpeace organization transition to a new era of people-powered campaigning shifting from Greenpeace-centric to supporter-centric campaigns. We’re working with staff in nearly 50 countries to design campaigns that enable the full power and potential of over 25 million supporters and activists to help us build stronger campaigns that win bigger. Our team has an independent budget to focus 100% on building capacity, challenging norms, sharing knowledge, and introducing new practices and tactics.

NTEN: Who are the Arctic 30, and how and why did MobLab get involved?

MS / WP: In September 2013, Russian security agents illegally boarded the Arctic Sunrise in international waters, seizing the ship and detaining all those on board at gunpoint. The ship was towed to Murmansk, and all those on board were locked up in cold, filthy cells, some of them in solitary confinement. They were charged with piracy and then hooliganism, crimes that carried lengthy prison sentences, because they dared to peacefully take action against destructive Arctic oil drilling and the onslaught of climate change, protesting at state-owned Gazprom’s Arctic drill platform in the Barents Sea. After 71 days in detention, the last of the Arctic 30 have been granted bail release, but severe piracy charges are still pending.

Some tools the MobLab provided to supporters of the Arctic 30

We got involved because there was a critical need to ensure that we were doing everything possible as an organization to help free these activists and leverage the global media spotlight to grow the campaign to save the Arctic. We added capacity to test new messages and tactics, and enable a global strategy brainstorm across offices and teams. Understanding how to effectively spread the messages by mobilizing new and existing supporters who connect with this cause through digital channels: thats what its all about.

NTEN: This has been a highly charged international incident. How have you baked principles of measurement and transparency into the campaign?

MS: We had to determine what could and should be measured. This campaign has been an opportunity to think about some of our limitations to measurement and tracking, and to have everyone really consider whats working and whats not.

WP: An informal group from several offices assembled for a week to take a look at our tools and platforms. It illuminated something many of us already knew: that consistency within digital engagement data was lacking. Trying to develop, implement, and execute a standard way to collect, track, and report on those digital efforts is an enormous challenge. The meetings gave us a good sense of our “universe” both the great effort our colleagues were already making in these areas, as well as opportunities to improve towards a complete, holistic point of view.

NTEN: Aside from this campaign, are there other wins you can pinpoint in these areas?

MS: There are over 100 active Greenpeace social accounts online. Were now seeing organizers include data analysis in their campaign planning. We at MobLab are still pushing, but it wouldnt get completely lost if we werent. Im also heartened by the fact that theres a lot of independent testing happening. People are using Optimize.ly for A/B testing, for example, and then reporting the results to everyone else.

WP: The focus and culture has definitely shifted, but the job is not done. Success would be having digital analysis (starting at defining digital analytic goals, implementing digital tracking and analytic tools for ongoing reporting, testing and optimization, ending with a complete campaign wrap up analysis) fully adopted as part of the overall campaign planning process.

NTEN: You mentioned Optimize.ly. Are there other tools that stand out as particularly helpful (or that you wish were more helpful)?

MS: We have issues with our bulk email tool, which doesnt make A/B testing as easy as it could be. On the upside, were making good progress with Google Analytics and Optimize.ly. On social analytics, were using Radian6, Topsy Pro, and Facebook insights.

WP: Greenpeace’s situation is so complex. In every office you may find a different setup for supporter data, a different set of digital engagement tools, etc. Even within offices, data can be fragmented among departments. I’m not sure theres a “one size fits all” solution, but as we work towards a common framework and toolset, it lessens the challenges towards complete supporter data integration a place where all departments view the same data and can have shared goals and metrics.

NTEN: Where would you like to see your campaign leaders a year from today with regard to systems and culture?

MS: We always want to see the four essentials of a people-powered campaign. The end is not putting data at the center of our campaigns; the end is more engagement-oriented organizing. We put people at the center of our campaigns, but data is an enabling tool. If we can use data to more effectively move people along and support our journey more deeply, thats a success point.

Academy of Hope

  • 25 staff, operating budget of $1.5 million
  • Data management might seem mundane, but there’s a strong connection between it and direct advocacy efforts.

Jordan Michelson shares his successes building building effective data management systems, and shows that they’re not only important to organizational staff. It helps other to advocate for your cause!

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Jordan, give us a snapshot of your work at Academy of Hope (AoH).

Jordan Michelson (JM): AoH provides a variety of programs and services around Adult Basic Education to meet the needs of adult learners in Washington, DC. We have a staff of 25 and an operating budget of $1.5 million.

We reached a huge milestone this year with a total of 55 graduates for the school year, our largest graduating class in history. And next year we’re going to evolve in a new direction as we launch a charter school, which we got approval for this spring. We have one year to put all of the details together, which gives us an opportunity to examine our program across the board, look closely at our processes, and determine what needs adjustment.

Before I was hired, most data work was focused on reporting, and was being done by various program staff at all different levels. Initially I balanced classroom instruction, program coordination, and administrative support with a new focus specifically on data and outcomes coordination. The latter has been a new opportunity for AoH and for me.

NTEN: What are some of the challenges you face in this role?

JM: As my position straddles programs and administration, its been challenging for the rest of the organization to understand my position and responsibilities. The more time I spend on programmatic issues, the less time I have to focus on our data needs.

When I started this position I made a list of goals that included launching a dashboard to evaluate how our classes were meeting the needs of our learners because I’d like to see us move from data used solely for reporting purposes to making data-informed decisions about our programs. I haven’t been able to push that needle yet.

Being in the nonprofit world comes with a certain amount of feasibility-checks; I’m sure that everyone on staff wants the things I just mentioned, but it may not be feasible to divert time and energy away from all of our other needs. It’s a tough balance, and it’s especially hard when you come to realize that this really good thing you want to do just isn’t a priority right now. But it’s important to remain optimistic, and know that the work you are doing is making a positive contribution to the organization’s mission.

NTEN: And you had proof of that recently! Tell us about your data win.

JM: I’ve been trying to link data to our organization’s mission whenever possible. One opportunity to drive the point home was when a student leader came to us for some information. She wanted to petition the city council to win funding for students to get to and from school, and she had some basic questions: How many of our learners in our student body receive bus tokens? How many face other barriers getting to AoH due to transportation?

We were able to provide this information quickly because of our student contact log. It’s a simple Excel workbook that’s kept on a shared drive where we keep track of every time a student calls to let us know they need to miss class. One field on the log is reason for absence. We were able to quickly look over the data from the term and the year, and come up with quantifiable numbers about how many students were facing these types of barriers.

Logging phone calls is not glamorous work and it doesn’t take a data hero to do something like that, but filling that log in consistently and actually looking back at it has the potential to make a big impact. And Excel is a system that everybody is able to use.

jordan_michelson_-_celebratory_meme_creaNTEN: Thats great! How did you celebrate it?

JM: I emailed all staff with a note of encouragement and affirmation. I wanted to help people see that even though this seems like a pretty mundane task, there’s a connection between them taking the time to fill in the log and a direct advocacy effort that really means something to our learners and community. People were excited; one coworker even turned it into a meme involving the Star Trek character, Data.

NTEN: How will you continue to foster a culture of data moving forward?

JM: I’d love to send all-staff emails highlighting our data wins on a semi-regular basis. I haven’t figured out a system for doing that, but that’s a next step.

Another exciting opportunity is on the horizon. We’re participating in a best practices meeting with other adult education providers in the DC area. I am hopeful that this will include data best practices and be a natural space to broach the topic of organization-to-organization data sharing or at least start having the conversation about what were all measuring, and how.

  • Lexington, KY
  • 5 Staff

How does an advocacy organization measure its effectiveness in a data-driven way? Rich Seckel, director of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, admits it can be a challenge. It’s difficult to be in a multi-variant world trying to prove causality,” he said.

The poverty law organization advocates on behalf of Kentuckians in need, serving as a watchdog for the state legislature, keeping an eye on bills that are filed and lobbying lawmakers. Rich said measuring effectiveness through data boils down showing funders data that supports not just his nonprofits impact on policy changes, but on the lives of people who benefit from its victories.

In 2003, with the state under intense pressure from the federal government to cut Medicare spending, the governor announced a series of changes that would save $45 million but would terminate nursing home or home healthcare coverage for 3,300 disadvantaged Kentuckians. To challenge the cuts, KEJC enlisted the National Senior Citizens Law Center and sued the state on the basis that the measures were solely to save money and therefore illegal. However, they didn’t have data to support the case that the cuts were unjust.

The Medicaid cuts were fairly unpopular with the electorate, so during the next gubernatorial election both candidates promised “not to kick people out of nursing homes.” When a new governor was elected the following year, counsel for the state agency expressed interest in settling the case. In the settlement, the agency pledged a return to the earlier standards, to review all people who had been denied or terminated from long term care, and to report on the results. Using that data, Kentucky Equal Justice Center found that 97 percent of those who had been denied benefits or whose benefits had been terminated had been restored long term care coverage – about 3,300 of them.

Three of the 10 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit KEJC filed contesting the cuts died before the issue was resolved, demonstrating not just the seriousness of the issue but that access to the right data can make or break an advocacy groups case.

KEJC’s work directly improved the lives of more than 3,000 Kentuckians, but often the situation isn’t so clear-cut, Rich said. Just about every funder he works with wants KEJC to evaluate its success in human terms, which can be tricky though; policy successes can be easily measured, the results cannot. The data he needs to demonstrate these results often come from such external sources as state agencies, he said, and can be hidden under layers of bureaucracy. One way around that obstacle that has worked for him, Rich said, is to establish relationships with friendly legislators or state government employees who will share reports that never get released to the public, but which have the data that he needs to show his organizations impact.

As part of a foundation grant given KEJC to boost its infrastructure, Rich was required to meet periodically with a trained evaluator who helped him understand the science behind the statistics the organization was tracking. That statistical analysis training showed him how many different variants come into play in the organizations work, and the different ways they can and should be interpretedin other words, he said, it gave him a conscience about ascribing too much change to the efforts of his nonprofit.

“We don’t brag too much,” he said, but conceded that maybe the organization should work a little harder to publicize its measurable results. “We probably need to get better at that.”

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.”

  • New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
  • 65 Staff (Full- and Part-Time)

The New York City-based Writopia Lab introduces children to writing and literature through a variety of programs, including writing workshops, a theater festival, and literary magazines. In addition to the organizations five NYC locations, it maintains two others upstate and branches in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Tracking participant data is critical to managing so many individual workshops and events for such a high volume of participants, and Writopia has covered some ground on the way to being a data-centric organization, but the geographical distribution of the staff is one of the hurdles it is overcoming along the way.

“We’re a gigantically distributed organization,” said Director of Operations Jeremy Wallace-Seagall. “That’s definitely one of the challenges we face. It’s difficult to coordinate consistently with the organizations staff members, both because of their locations and their scheduling,” he said. “There are 65 total staff, but not all work at the same time, as many of the organizations faculty are seasonal or part-time.”

Another obstacle is that the tools at his disposal are not necessarily the best for the job, nor do they all integrate well. Jeremy is doing what he can to take advantage of the different opportunities to collect and use data, he said, but to some extent he’s simply making do.

At Writopias New York offices, he uses a Microsoft Access database that he’s tweaked in unusual ways to meet his needs; a less than ideal solution, he said, despite his advanced modifications. “I’m an old database head, but one who got stuck in Access,” he said. “I like to say that I’ve done things with Access that very few people have done, but it’s still Access; it faces all the same limitations as any Access database.”

The organizations other locations dont share the database, an inconsistency which causes problems. To remedy it, Jeremy is considering switching to Salesforce across the nonprofit, and promised himself that by year’s end he’d have either standardized all locations onto Access database or rolled out a new Salesforce database.

Currently he’s looking for a database and website consultant to help consolidate and streamline data, which he believes will help with reporting and analysis – which in turn will help him manage growth.

“We’re growing every year somewhere between 45 and 65 percent, and there are always people saying, “Hey, can you come to my region?””he said. “I need to be able to analyze our growth and see how many workshops an average student takes and have all the registration and enrollment data in one place to see what makes sense.”

“We have outgrown our space on the Upper West Side, and we’re trying to analyze whether we should get a gigantic space here on the Upper West Side or a smaller space here and another one downtown or in Brooklyn or wherever,” he said. So we’re looking at where our clients come from, and similar people in those areas. If we go to the east side, will it be all this pent-up demand, or is everyone who might come to our workshops already coming?

Writopia Lab runs on a self-sustaining business model in which workshop participants pay on a no-questions-asked sliding scale pricing systemabout 50 percent pay full fee, 40 percent pay somewhere in the middle, and 10 percent get full scholarships. Though the nonprofit gets some grant money – about 10 percent of its total funding – currently none of the funders asks for reporting.

“That’s great in terms of being able to focus on getting things done, and not having to report in orange for one giver and yellow for another, but it means I have not taken this time to consolidate our data and come up with great ways of turning that data into information,” Jeremy said, adding that he plans to change that and hopes to focus on making use of that data in coming months.

“That’s what the next year is about personally for me,” he said. “Turning data into information. I’ve drafted dashboards and looked at various tools. We have a donor packet that we give out to people, and I’ve got some pretty reports in that. They’re all completely legitimate, but our analysis is not terribly robust. That’s sort of an artifact – we’ve been so busy serving clients that we’ve not had the time to chase after funding, or produce reports that would make it easy for us to drastically change the amount of institutional giving were receiving.”

“My hope and expectation over the next year is that well see that cycle twist, and the reports will come and tell a convincing-enough story that it will be easy enough to get in front of funders,” he said.

Writopias enrollment-tracking capabilities have not reached the levels Jeremy would like. Without a shared registration/enrollment/contact management database, information is spread out in a number of places and systems, which makes it difficult to use the data effectively.

“Part of it is a workflow challenge,” he said. “This sort of gets to the notion of loosely joining best-in-class systems, when my dream, really, is to have one piece of software that does everything in my life. I get the pitfalls of that I have reservations about having all my eggs in one basket, and there are other concerns; but having all your eggs in one basket makes it really easy to find them.”

Under the current system, potential clients have to visit separate web pages for each branch of the nonprofit to find their scheduled classes, a separate registration page for each branch that plugs into a Google spreadsheet, plus a pricing page and they have to remember all the information on each course they’re interested in, look it up on the pricing page, and register for it separately.

“I don’t care that I have to copy everything from the Google Docs to an Access database,” Jeremy said. “What’s brutal is what clients have to go through; that’s the piece that is most important to us. If I don’t get my website rebuilt, if I don’t get my Access db out to everyone, if I don’t get my Salesforce database installed, I have to find a way to make it easier for people to find and sign up for our workshops.”

He said hes been working to establish a data culture across the organization, which hasn’t always come easily. If you’re making a list, do it in a spreadsheet instead of a document,” he said. “It took me a while to create that sort of way of thinking, but I think people are pretty well on board with the notion that were collecting data, and whether or not were analyzing exactly this data at exactly this time, we want to be mindful of collecting the data in a clear and reasonable way.”

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.”

  • 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.”

A large metropolitan nonprofit paves the way for data-centric organizations with a dedicated team of data analysts.

YMCA of Metro Chicago

  • 500-600 Full-Time Staff
  • $110 Million Budget
  • 23 gyms, 5 camps, 14 community schools

The YMCA of Metro Chicago is a big organization, with a $110 million budget and a physical infrastructure that includes 23 gyms, five camps and 14 community schools, all supported by nearly 600 full-time staff and thousands of part-time fitness instructors, afterschool staff, and other human services personnel. In addition to gym visitors, the nonprofit provides services for hundreds of Chicago public school students and as many as 700 seniors each week.

That many moving parts means a lot of opportunity for data-tracking, which the YMCA sees as a priority to an extent that few other organizations do. To that end, a three-person performance improvement team focuses entirely on data.

“There’s no other human services organization I know of that has a department like us that’s tasked with doing this thing in particular,” said performance improvement analyst Andrew Means. “We track operational data as well as impact. No other Y across the country has this office, as far as I know, and no other organization has poured these kinds of resources into data.”

His job on the data team “is to help operate our business more efficiently and help quantify and understand the impact were having through quantitative methodologies,” he said—at least, that’s the long version. The short version: He digs through data and builds relationships. And that data is expansive, he said.

“It’s getting to the point where I can look at class registration and what programs are full, and track youth attendance at our different programs and facilities,” he said. That information can be used to measure impact through fitness testing in the programs. “In 12 of our centers, were tracking youth heights and weights, flexibility, you name it,” he said. “So, I’ll be able to start tracking that and see what the populations were working with look like. I can also compare that to the general population to see if were attracting just healthy kids, or if there are any other patterns or opportunities.”

The goal is to make sure the YMCA of Metro Chicago is offering the best programs it can.

“We’re a city in dire need of services, Andrew said. Our youth are suffering from a variety of social problems. Our CEO knew that to lead the charge, we’d need to know what we were doing in a way that was more than anecdotal stories—and, we’d need to be able to back that up with hard data and some science behind it.”

The CEO’s desire for the Y to become a community leader led to the focus on data and improved program outcomes. But there’s a secondary goal beyond improving services, Andrew said—the data reporting capabilities are critical for attracting funders.

“Philanthropy and major donors want to see this,” he said. “Now we can approach them and say, ‘Hey, you have a myriad of programs to fund, and we’re the only ones who can tell you what our program has done—these are the facts and figures.’ Funders want to fund high quality programming. If we can show that, if we can prove that, it’s going to be a very attractive offer to philanthropic organizations.”

The team is working to link data tracked internally to external data, he said—for example, from state and local juvenile justice agencies, which would let Andrew track whether the Y’s academic programs are having any effect on crime and delinquency rates in the city—but isn’t there yet.

“There’s a lot of different ways we get data from the field,” he said. “One is operational data—we know how many people are signing up, how many are checking in to our facilities, things like that. But there’s all this other information our boots-on-the ground people have to collect. We’re really trying to move toward taking enrollment data—who is showing up?—and connecting it to other data sources to see if our programs are moving the needle on juvenile justice, or school attendance rate.”

While none of it would be possible without the support of the CEO and the buy-in of the entire organization, neither would it be possible without recent advances in technology that facilitate the tracking and processing of so much data—from the membership cards users swipe at YMCA facilities, which provide detailed attendance records that he can use in concert with other participant data, to the software for managing, analyzing and reporting on that information.

“It would not have been possible 20 years ago to do the kind of analysis were doing today,” Andrew said, citing as an example a current project looking at 12 years’ worth of data presented in seven million rows. “Being able to do that with technology? That’s new. Data is useless unless you can communicate it, too, and those tools are really evolving.”

While the YMCA of Metro Chicago has a leg up thanks to its devoted data department, he said other organizations are slowly beginning to think more proactively about data, as well, but overall the field is still emerging.

“There are nonprofits interested in learning how to use data, but in most cases the capacity is lagging behind what’s being asked of them, and they’re kind of playing catch up”, he said. “A lot of organizations are connecting nonprofits to data scientists, but that doesn’t solve any long-term problems with nonprofits—it has to be built from within.”

The YMCA of Metro Chicago’s model changed the organizational culture to make data collection and analysis intrinsic, and Andrew believes that’s the way other organizations will succeed, as well—even if its on a smaller scale. “Find someone in your organization to do it—someone who likes Excel, he said. Begin to groom them and give them some capacity to do this stuff. I’m a big believer in expertise. People are beginning to talk this language without really knowing what it means, and are saying things they can’t support. They talk about impact but the data they use to back that up is actually inaccurate. Having data is not enough. Being able to interpret it is the next step.”

“If I can leave one mark on the world, it’s that I want nonprofits to use data to improve programming,” he said. “The reason nonprofits exist is to solve problems in the world. For too long, nonprofits have been responsible for telling stories and making sure they weren’t wasting money, but they didn’t know if they were solving problems—now you can actually know if you’re solving problems and you can show funders that. This needs to happen. We have limited resources and should not waste any more time.”

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.”