Tag: Data

Data is an incredibly valuable tool. It allows us to observe, understand and assess our work. Importantly, data can also be used to tell our work’s story. Through metrics, measures, charts, and graphs, we can effectively highlight the impact of our work in ways that make current and potential donors take note.

As with any tool, we have an ethical responsibility to use it correctly. When it comes to using data for storytelling, we must find a way to be persuasive without being deceptive.

Do most organizations intend to deceive their audiences with data? Absolutely not! That said, it is easy to fall into some common traps when it comes to interpreting results or displaying information for our audience.

Fortunately, with just a few easy steps, we can ensure that we are crafting our stories responsibly and effectively.

Actively combat confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that agrees with what you already believe, and to discount opinions and data that disprove your beliefs. Whenever you embark on an analytical journey, keep an open mind and understand that the data may or may not confirm your hypothesis, and it may not always tell the story for which you are hoping.

To avoid bias, you can:

  • Enlist colleagues to help you do a bias check. Have them challenge your assumptions and the data you use to support them.

Choose the right way to display your data.

Using data to tell the story of your work relies heavily upon your ability to visualize your data.  There are many ways to do this, and even the same data can be visualized differently depending on the point you are trying to make.  This is the most helpful tool I’ve found in helping to decide what type of visualization will work best for your goal.

Once you choose how you will display your data, the first thing to consider is scale.

Take a look at the chart below. Which pie segment is the largest?

a pie chart split into 3 equal segments, with the bottom orange segment appearing largest because the image is 3D

Did you say the orange segment? In fact, each segment is exactly one-third of the pie.

A 2-dimensional pie chart split into three equal parts, so that all parts appear equal to the eye

This 3D visual distorts your perception and encourages you to mistakenly interpret the data.

Let’s look at another example. In the column charts below, it appears that there is a significant different between the columns on the left, but a small difference between the columns on the right.

2 2-column charts next to each other, with the one on the left appearing to show a greater difference

In fact, both of these charts us the same data but a different scale. The chart on the left overemphasizes the difference between the two columns by using a smaller range of numbers for the vertical axis.

2 2-column charts next to each other, this time with number showing the percentage difference

If someone were to use the scale on the left without explaining the actual small difference between the two columns, the discrepancy could be misinterpreted by the audience as much more substantial than it actually is.

Provide the appropriate context.

Are you being irresponsible if you use a chart that emphasizes a difference? Absolutely not! But you would need to provide the appropriate context so the audience knows how to interpret what they are seeing. That’s the job of the data visualizer, to clearly communicate what the audience should walk away knowing.

Here is an example of how to provide appropriate context for your story:

A column chart depicting a 5% difference, with accompanying text: This program was a success! We increased our donor engagement by 5% without spending a dime!

Data has tremendous potential to help purpose-driven organizations make smarter decisions, gain new insights, and effectively tell a story that is both persuasive and ethically sound. For more tips on how to effectively tell your story with data, check out the Data Playbook, and specifically the section on Communicating Results.

Are you using data to share the story of your work? Share your ideas with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation to help expand this community resource.


Many nonprofit organizations have already caught onto the fact that implementing a membership program can incentivize more donors to give to their organization. After all, the very nature of membership programs is incentivizing. When becoming a member, donors receive certain benefits or perks in exchange for making donations in the form of membership fees or dues.

The problems lies in that fact that, instead of focusing on keeping the members they already have, many organizations turn the majority (or even entirety) of their focus onto gaining new members. However, this is a big mistake. It’s much more cost effective for your organization to put your resources toward member retention than it is to put them toward member recruitment.

Think about it: you’ve already successfully convinced your current members of the worthiness of your cause and the value of your membership program. That means it will take far fewer resources to get them to give again! Take advantage of your donor database or association management software to gain insights into what your members want (and if you want to learn more about membership and association software, check out Neon’s guide).

In this article, I’ll focus on 4 best practices that can help you win members for life.

1. Choose the most appealing benefits.

Why it works:

The reason membership programs are such an effective fundraising strategy is because they incentivize your supporters’ donations.

These types of programs are incentivizing for two main reasons:

  1. Benefits. Membership programs provide specialized benefits to the donors who join them. These benefits can range anywhere from a welcome packet that includes branded merchandise to internal influence at your nonprofit. Membership benefits provide donors with exclusive opportunities to engage with your organization in the ways that are most meaningful to them.
  2. Exclusivity. Since not all donors will receive member status or perks, donors will feel like they’re joining an exclusive club. Having exclusive access to your organization can really make members feel especially valued!

For your membership program to reach its full motivational potential, it’s important to choose the perks that will most appeal to your members. You should be offering the benefits and opportunities that meet donors where they are and best speak to how they ideally want to interact with your organization. If current members feel like they’re being understood and like they’re gaining something valuable from your program, they’ll be much more likely to renew once expiry rolls around.

How it’s done:

To figure out which membership benefits your supporter base will find irresistible, turn to your donor data. You can analyze your supporters’ past interaction history to figure out which benefits might appeal most to your base.

If your organization is notorious for its fundraising events and always sees a higher volume of donations when interacting with donors in person, you might consider offering event-related benefits through your membership program. You could give your members VIP access to your annual fundraising auction (think: better seats, free refreshments, etc.) or invite them to conferences and trade shows that non-members wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend.

All it takes is knowing a little bit about your donors’ habits and preferences and meeting them where they want to be met.

In summary: Membership programs that include the benefits and perks that most appeal to supporters’ interest will foster the highest retention rates.

2. Personalize your outreach.

Why it works:

Perhaps the biggest key to member (and donor) retention is personalizing your outreach. It’s true that your members are united by your organization’s common cause and are likely motivated by similar incentives (they were all inclined to join your membership program, after all!). 

However, each member still has unique preferences, habits, and concerns. They all want to hear from your organization through different communication channels, and they all want to engage with your organization in different ways. The more you can cater your outreach to each individual donor based on their habits and preferences, the more relevant, and thus, compelling your outreach will be.

Taking a personalized approach to your outreach shows members that your organization is invested in them as individuals, not just in the funding they can bring in. When members know that you’re interested in building deeper relationships with them, they’ll feel more valued by your organization and be more inclined to stick with your program.

How it’s done:

This is where your donor database or association management software will come in handy. You can use your member profiles to start creating individualized outreach strategies for each member.

  1. Use the member’s name. While using your members’ names in the salutation of your outreach might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many nonprofits still use a generic greeting like “Dear member” or “Dear friend.”
  2. Pinpoint communication preferences. Looking back on past interaction history, you can get an idea of which communication channels each of your members is most responsive to.
  3. Find further opportunities for engagement. I’ll go into this more in the next point, but analyzing past interaction history can also give you insight into which additional engagement opportunities might appeal to your members.

Using any of the data fields you have listed in the platform, you can segment your list to better target your member base with individualized content.

In summary: Sending personalized communications ensures that your outreach is relevant and that your members will always feel valued as individuals, both of which lead to heightened member retention.

3. Offer plenty of engagement opportunities.

Why it works:

One of the great things about membership programs is that they provide you with a built-in structure for reaching out and engaging your supporters. After all, you’ll have to administer the benefits of your program to your members.

Some membership programs have a more hands-on structure than others. For example, an advocacy-based membership program that provides members with a guided structure for taking political action might provide plenty of active engagement opportunities (signing petitions, attending rallies, writing to legislators, etc.). However, a community-based membership program that centers on offering its members access to exclusive facilities, classes, or services would rely mainly on the member initiating interaction with the organization.

It takes frequent interaction with your members to keep them invested in your organization. And the best way to do that is by presenting further opportunities for engagement that go beyond the scope of your program.

Providing members with frequent chances to interact with your organization:

  • Can help them feel like they’re getting maximum value out of your program.
  • Always keeps your organization and the great work you’re doing fresh on their minds.
  • Makes them feel more connected to your cause and work.

All of these factors will increase the chances that current members will renew.

How it’s done:

Using the insights you’ve gleaned from studying your members’ past interaction history with your organization, you can scope out other engagement opportunities that might appeal to their interests.

Here are some of the additional opportunities you could provide:

  • Sharing exclusive news and/or content.
  • Inviting members to events, conferences, or trade shows.
  • Seeing if members would be interested in volunteering.
  • Having members take advocacy-related actions, like signing petitions or writing to local leaders.
  • Asking members to participate in peer-to-peer campaigns.

These opportunities don’t even have to be exclusive. They can certainly be opportunities you’re offering to non-members as well. The important thing here is to find the opportunities that are most likely to engage your members further and to provide them on a regular basis.

In summary: Providing members with frequent opportunities to interact with your organization outside the scope of your membership program will ensure that they always stay engaged. Engagement leads to investment, which in turn leads to renewal.

4. Make renewal easy.

Why it works:

People are increasingly motivated by convenience, especially in a day and age where depositing a check or ordering a meal can be done with the mere click of a button. To foster the highest member retention rates, your organization should aim to make membership renewal as convenient for your members as possible. The easier and shorter the process for membership renewal is, the more likely your members are to follow through.

How it’s done:

Luckily, making renewal easy on your members will be easy for your nonprofit, too.

With association management software (the type of software that was especially built to help nonprofits facilitate their membership programs) you can add the option to set up recurring renewal right on your online membership formTo renew their membership, all members will have to do is to check off this box when they’re filling out your form. You can even provide them with multiple renewal options (one year renewal, two year renewal, multiple membership tiers, etc.), so they’ll have the flexibility to choose what’s most convenient for them.

By setting up this option, renewal will be automated for both your donors and your organization. Your software will automatically charge the payment method you have listed on file once it’s time for membership to expire.

In summary: Your members will be more inclined to renew when doing so is straightforward and convenient. Set up automated renewals through your association management software to make the process easier on both you and your members.

Bonus: Convenience is key: learn more about building a successful landing page.

Increasing your membership renewal rates will take some effort, but it’s certainly not something that’s too difficult. To keep your members coming back, all it takes a thoughtful approach to structuring your membership program and reaching out to your members. Do that, and you should have a base of members who are loyal for life.


Image credit: paulaphotos

When we think about using data, we often think of it in terms of external audiences:

  • How can we use data to help prospective funders see why our work is important?
  • How can we use data to show donors what we have done with their money and how their gifts have made an impact?
  • How can we use data to build the case for investing in this program or initiative?

How much time and effort do we spend on doing the same for our internal audiences?

I don’t mean benchmarking, or monitoring and evaluation towards data-driven decision-making. Nor do I mean annual goals and reviews. They’re important, but they are not what I’m talking about.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to assume that, because our team members are on board with the mission, we don’t need to inspire them. They already know the impact they’re making, right? They’re here, and they compiled the data for the grant report, or they saw that e-mail that went out to our supporters, etc. They understand that it’s the outcomes that are important.

Raise your hand (here’s mine!) if you get satisfaction out of crossing something off a list, out of seeing a freshly painted wall, or out of the increasing number of signatures on a petition?

When working towards changing the world, we often have projects and programs that are also ambitious. They take a long time before you see any effects. Or maybe they involve slogging through lots of mud as you try to build something new, or figuring out what exactly to build as you’re building it. We all get tired when we’re in the middle. We question why we are doing what we’re doing, and whether what we’re doing is even making a dent, or ever going to lead to that desired outcome.

Those are all important questions. But we should ask them to ensure we’re on track, not in reaction to being exhausted from hacking through all the weeds. And it’s easy to forget that sometimes the connections that are clear to us are not to everyone else. Maybe you can see the path up that mountain, while everybody else sees underbrush and thinks the group lost the trail a long time ago.

Think back to when you were kid, trying new things. Think about an activity that came easily and quickly to you. Now think about something that was much more difficult. Which activity did you stick with?

In change management, this concept is called “small wins.” But you don’t necessarily have to be working on a big change; this concept can be helpful to any long-term or large-scale effort. It can also be helpful even in shorter term projects when there are a lot of little pieces and most people only get to see their own section.

So how do we build this into projects without creating a lot more work?

Once upon a time, I was in charge of sending out direct mail appeals. Which meant asking everyone in the office to come help stuff envelopes. People joined as their schedules allowed—a couple hours here, a half hour in between conference calls there, etc. To most, it seemed an endless stream of letters, envelopes, and mailing labels. (Okay, it did to me, too!)

A week or two after the mailing had dropped and donations began rolling in, I e-mailed everyone who had helped, letting them know the total number of envelopes they had stuffed and the donations received so far as a result of this appeal. People were excited to know what they’d done together as a group and the preliminary results.

Doing this did not involve data that wasn’t already being collected or that I didn’t already have access to—but it was data that not everyone else working on the project had access to see. It doesn’t need to be some sophisticated dashboard. It can be if that’s your thing, but don’t allow perfecting that to be another excuse to procrastinate on sharing this information. And that’s my point: you rarely need to collect extra data. You merely need to help others see the rest of the picture, then move on.

But what if I look at this data and we are off track? Then course correct. Use the data to show others where the gap is, create that sense of urgency, and get their help in fixing it.

Picture the week before summer camp. Schedules have conspired such that most of the experienced staff was out of the office for other events. One of the biggest pieces is getting registration completed for the 200+ campers and chaperones we had invited from our program sites across the country. People were plugging away, but nobody had a clear idea of how much stood between us and the finish line or what to focus on, in large part because a lot of the data from paperwork had not been entered in yet.

I looked in the camp roster (an Excel spreadsheet) and quickly tallied up the number of complete registrations, incomplete registrations, and spots to be determined (i.e. held spots with no data entered). We held a team meeting in the morning. I shared these numbers, explaining that our goal was to close the gap, but that the priority for the day was entering the rest of the paperwork so we could tell how big of a gap it really was. Then I sent out an e-mail update including everyone on the team in and out of the office. I also posted the numbers on a piece of paper on the conference room door.

Throughout the day, the interns crossed out and updated the numbers on the door. They were excited to see the number of completed registrations go up while the other categories went down. At the end of the day, I e-mailed an update to the team comparing our morning numbers with our end of day numbers so that we could see 1) how far we’d come, and 2) what we needed to accomplish the next day. We closed that gap by the end of the week.

I can’t claim credit for getting all this paperwork in—everyone did their part to close the gaps once they could see clearly where the biggest gaps were and where to focus their efforts. All I did was filter and count up rows in Excel, then put that information in front of the people who needed to see it. End result? We got what we needed for our kids to come to camp and have a great time!

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Many times, it is not that these small wins are not happening so much as that only a few can see them. Data is simply another way to help our teammates see both the forest and the trees.

Think about the data you have and how you can use it for internal audiences:

  • How can we use data to demonstrate to team members why the program or project is important?
  • How can we use data to show our colleagues how their contributions have made an impact?
  • How can we use data to build the case for investing staff time in this program or initiative?

Just as we hope to make our supporters feel like they are a part of something greater by sharing data on what they’ve helped us achieve, let us also remember the people by our side who want the same thing.

Photo credit: Carlos Muza

Over twenty years ago, I was convinced that law school was my future. Then I learned how to write HTML and design websites, and my career path went in a very different direction. There are moments in time when opportunities arise and you just have to take them. I firmly believe we are witnessing another one of those moments of opportunity for people working in the nonprofit sector.

We live in a time when data and information are changing how we work and are amplifying the results. For nearly two years now, I’ve been researching and writing about how people in the nonprofit sector are using data to drive real change. What I found along the way is explored in the new book Data Driven Nonprofits.

It is clear from talking with lots of nonprofit professionals that understanding and using data is one of the most important skills that you can possess today. And there is little doubt that data literacy and data science are also valuable skills for the future, too.

Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, once said, “The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians. People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer engineers would’ve been the sexy job of the 1990s?” This is a good prediction, but does it mean we all need to be trained statisticians?

Common Denominator

You might be surprised to hear that one of the common threads I’ve found among successful data driven professionals is not a statistics background or deep data science know-how. Instead, the common denominator has been natural curiosity. Data driven professionals are people who always ask why something happened, how we can make something happen, and what we can best do to improve results.

Curiosity appears to be the secret ingredient, combined with data and know-how, to solve a problem. Just having the hard skills is not enough. You should consider curiosity to be the non-functional requirement to maximize your potential in a more data driven world.

Choose Your Own Data Adventure

If you are at the beginning of your nonprofit career, then nothing is going to shape your ability to make an impact on the world more than the ability to use data. Yes, there will be times when people will want to use their years of experience to shoot down your ideas. My advice is to always speak softly and bring data. Put the time in now to learn and increase your data muscle tone.

If you are in the middle of your nonprofit career, then your key to being a leader and going to the next level will be greatly influenced by your data skills. You need to get out of your comfort zone and sharpen your data literacy and presentation skills. Maybe skip that conference session on social media and go to the analytics presentation down the hall. Put down the latest piece of fiction and grab a book on the subject of data or analytics.

If you are in the twilight years of your nonprofit career, then being a champion for more use of data is one of the best ways to leave your mark. Let’s be honest—it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to learn regression analysis or machine learning algorithms. But you can help your board members, staff, and team members to embrace the use of data. The simple act of asking people, “What data do we have, and how can that help us make a decision” can get things moving in the right direction.

Numeracy and Literacy

As children, three of the most valuable skills we learned were to read, write, and count. You are probably very familiar the term literacy, but what about its numerical equivalent? Numeracy is the ability to understand and work with numbers. In a data driven world, the importance of data literacy takes on big importance.

Data literacy is one of the most valuable skills that you can have today and as you move into the future. A data literate person possesses the skills to gather, analyze, and communicate information to support decision-making. The communication of information includes speaking, writing, and visualization.

General literacy is the skill that allows us to derive information from the written word. To be data literate means layering in another set of skills to get meaning, to communicate, and to make decisions with the data you use on a daily basis.

Notice that this has nothing to do with the technology involved or the data science skills required to develop things like predictive models. Instead, the key to data literacy is being able to use the information to make decisions. This also requires us to be able to recognize when the data we are being shown might be misleading or used in an inappropriate way.

Be More Data Driven

Now, numbers may not be your thing. I get it. You’re getting this advice from someone who was a “D” student in calculus and has put a lot of time into being a numbers person. This is why being curious and wanting to understand how things work can help you to level up your skills.

Thirty years ago, if you did anything with computers, people described what you did as “working with computers.” Today, everyone uses computers and it’s not a specialty. Twenty years ago, if you did anything with the internet, then people described what you did as “working with the internet.” Today, everyone uses the internet and it’s not a specialty.

Ten years from now, we are all going to be working with data. You won’t be able to escape using data and information, whether your focus is on technology, marketing, programs, advocacy, fundraising, or outcomes. Data will not be a specialty. It will be the way people measure, manage, and decide how things are done. Choosing to be more data driven today is the key to being more successful tomorrow.

In 2013, I was invited to spend a year as a Visiting Scholar at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. My goal was to work on a book and think with foundation colleagues about what it meant to be an effective nonprofit organization in the digital age. Well, okay, I’m still working on the book.

But the thinking about being digital part led down a path of inquiry about ethical use of data. I drafted an atlas of opportunities; then come colleagues and I tried to develop a typology of approaches. Together, we conducted digital asset inventories and categorized activities and resources and functional responsibilities. I spent the last few months as a visiting scholar road-testing a suite of learning materials, policy options, and tools.

After my year was up, with the Foundation’s blessing, I took a slide deck, worked with the Technology Affinity Group and the Markets for Good Community, and turned it into digitalIMPACT.io.

The goal of the website is to support individual organizations and learning communities in using digital data safely, ethically and effectively. The digitalIMPACT project, started to help one foundation address the opportunities ahead, is now a flagship project for the Digital Civil Society Lab and Markets For Good.

DigitalIMPACT intends to help nonprofits and foundations co-create and share practices for using digital data that align with their missions. We believe that these practices, policies, and tools need to be invented by the sector, for the sector. The website is a hub of materials to get this capacity-building effort started: the digitalIMPACT project.

The project has two parts: a website and a set of community partnerships. The digitalMPACT.io website offers three types of information:

  • Easy-to-understand explanations of how and why digital data are different from time and money, (the assets that nonprofits are used to managing), and why that matters
  • A guide to the type of governance decisions that organizations need to consider to manage their digital data ethically, safely, and effectively—and policy templates to help inform their choices
  • Tools, such as checklists and guidelines, designed by and for nonprofits to inform their use of digital data

Civil society organizations already collect and use data from individuals toward achievement of their mission. We built this new tool primarily to support civil society in developing and sharing practices for the safe, ethical, and effective use of such digital data.

All of the materials on digitalIMPACT.io are guided by a set of principles derived from the nature of civil society. These are called out on the site as the “Three Principles” of using digital data ethically, safely, and effectively. The Three Principles are informed by a definition of civil society as the place where we voluntarily use our private resources for public purpose.

The Three Principles are:

  • Consent: The data you need that come from your constituents are theirs. Ask for them and treat them with integrity
  • Privacy: Protect those data. They’re valuable. Best approach to protection? Minimum viable data collection
  • Openness: You’re here to serve a public purpose. Design your data practices with openness and sharing in mind from the beginning

The digitalIMPACT.io site was built and is maintained by the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (also home to Markets For Good). Materials on the site have been contributed by an ever-expanding network of nonprofit and foundation partners and are available for free download and use.

The digitalIMPACT.io site is just the first part of the project. Building from the website, we will be conducting workshops and demos, seeking to co-create materials with and for specific functional areas of work, with affinity groups, and for global actors. We are eager to create working groups, task forces, user testing, and alliances with existing networks. Contributions of materials are welcome and can be submitted directly through the site.

You can use the contact form on digitalIMPACT.io to get in touch, to share or request materials, and to inquire about ways we might work together.

The data we hold are often considered the keys to success: if we can just use data to tell stories and support our goals, we’ll win that grant, manage the board better, respond in real time, and better understand the ebb and flow of our programs. Yet effective data use is also one of the biggest challenges organizations meet: how to trust it, build transparency, support the stories that need telling, and make sure the right people have access to it, over many years.

At a minimum, an organization needs to provide data for annual reports, board oversight, and grant making. Internally, evaluation and monitoring programs all require data to provide the quantitative analysis portion of any robust assessment.

Web analytic tools are robust and relatively effortless and, when you’re gathering the right metrics, really provide value for your time. In contrast, gathering data on your program offerings and their impacts is a little more challenging.

It is almost always a struggle to access program data easily, consistently, and repeatedly without losing weeks in the process. Ideally, your organization has one system that houses all key data and tools that enable you to access and analyze data systematically, providing you with key benchmarking metrics. Not there yet? Fear not—if you are using different systems for different activities, you can still build a strong data process using your existing tools.

Building Better Systems

Identify the tools that give you consistency, accessibility, and ease of use. These could be from your current databases, surveys, registration forms, and Google docs. If a key metric you want to track isn’t yet in digital form, take a step back and put in place systems that will help you gather that quickly and easily (Google forms may be a really good option if you don’t have an existing way to gather information digitally). Identify what information can be exported to Excel or a Google spreadsheet. Understanding and using pivot tables vastly increases the efficacy of spreadsheets and can allow you to quickly see if your key metrics will provide actionable and clear data.

Know what you need to measure, report on, and respond to. If you’re the one managing the data project, do this for yourself before building metrics for others (you understand your own data better).

Create Awareness

Build detailed reporting to track enrollment numbers from macro to micro levels. You want to see enrollment figures for your entire organization and quickly to drill down to individual classes and lessons. This metric feeds into evaluation criteria and helps its supporters demonstrate impact.

Gain Insight

Use the same search criteria repeatedly over different time periods. When you can see key benchmark criteria by which you, your staff, and your funders evaluate your activities, you have an improved understanding of the impact of your programs and are able to set tangible goals.

Respond in Real Time

Create reports and visuals that provide a snapshot of current activities. Trends and historical data analysis are crucial, but data really starts having impact when it demonstrates what’s happening today. Be prepared to act in response to what you’re seeing, as this metric should illustrate slow enrollment and high turnover.


Establish benchmarking tools that let you look at the same set of data by week, semester, and custom data ranges. This metric illustrates trends that your organization can respond to over time.


Learn how to gather answers to questions not yet asked. Your goal is to have your key data in the same place so that you can respond to questions. That may mean building a core excel spreadsheet and populating that from different sources or, if the need for data is increasing in regularity, it may mean it is time to consider a comprehensive system that can support your data analysis requirements for years to come.

The chances are you’ll need more than one data-gathering source to truly get a macro-to-micro view of your activities. Spreadsheets and pivot tables really can provide incredibly strong tools to those without access to more robust software. Their value comes when the data being analyzed is reliable, consistent, and directly relate to your goals and benchmarks.

Many nonprofits are nervous about their information security, and understandably so. Even large and well-financed organizations, such as the NSA, The White House, Target, Chase Bank, Home Depot, and Sony, have all been hacked. And if they can’t protect their data, even with their extensive resources and high-priced IT experts, how can a small nonprofit possibly protect its information?

A common sense approach is to first consider what risks your organization is most likely to face and then develop a plan to address them. This is called a risk analysis.

Assessing your data

The first step is to take a kind of inventory. Exactly what data do you have? Where is it located? Most importantly, how sensitive is the information?

List all of the different types of data by location. For example, if you have a donor management system, list everything it collects and stores: addresses, donations given, petitions signed, etc. Then, move on to your website and list everything stored on it.

Repeat this process for each location where your organization stores information, including Cloud-based storage. This will provide you with a comprehensive map of the data your organization collects.

Sticky notes are a helpful tool for this exercise. You could write each type of data onto a note that’s color-coded by system. This will make it easier when you begin sorting. If you prefer to see everything on one page, RoundTable Technology has created a spreadsheet template to use for this process.

Once you have inventoried all of your data, the next question is: How much do you care about it? What’s essential to your organization’s ability to function? What would risk your constituents’ well being or your organization’s reputation if it got out?

One helpful approach is to divide up the data you’ve listed into three categories:

  • Data you can’t lose
  • Data that can’t be exposed
  • Nonessential data

Examples of data you “can’t lose” might include the final files for a major project, templates and brand standards, or employee handbooks and manuals. Examples of data you “can’t expose” could be donor information, HR records, strategy documents, or payment information. You might even feel that some things are both “can’t expose” and “can’t lose.” That would indicate that those items are your highest priorities.

At the end of this sorting, you’ll probably have a few sticky notes left over. Those are likely to fall in the “nonessential” bucket. To be clear, the “nonessential data” category doesn’t mean that you should be careless with that data, just that you’re not going to place a high priority on securing it. For example, you may have put blog posts in the “nonessential” category because they don’t contain any sensitive or essential data. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to protect your website content from being lost or vandalized.

Considering the risks

Once you’ve sorted out what you “can’t lose” and what “can’t be exposed,” the next step is to identify the risks your organization faces. Ask yourself:

  • What could happen to that data?
  • How likely is it that something would happen to it?
  • How bad would it be if something happened to it?

“What could happen?” is about imagining the various scenarios that would put your data at risk. Is it at risk in a fire? What if a computer was infected by ransomware—a malicious virus that encrypts your data until you pay a “ransom” for its release? Could data be picked up by a keystroke logger? The number of security risk scenarios is potentially huge, but here are a few of the most common:

Physical theft of equipment or printed files

  • Natural disaster
  • Improper disposal of equipment or printed files
  • Inappropriate use of software
  • Phishing (employees fooled into providing data)
  • Insecure mobile devices
  • Spying via software that tracks activity or keystrokes
  • Spying via WiFi connection
  • Hacking through remote access to your network
  • Vandalism through malicious viruses or adware
  • Ransomware
  • Denial of Service attacks (bots flooding your website with traffic and causing it to crash)
  • Social engineering (someone without authorization convincing authorized personnel to hand over information or access to systems)

More generally, these scenarios describe various ways your data can be lost, changed, misappropriated, made unavailable, or exposed.

How likely any of these are to happen is a little less straightforward. In most cases, the likelihood of any of these events occurring depends on the behaviors of your staff members. People who thoughtlessly click on links are going to significantly increase the risk of viruses and other malware. Other scenarios might depend on whether you’re likely to be singled out as a target—organizations that work on contentious issues are more likely to be vandalized or exposed. The outside perception that you handle a lot of money might also make you a target.

“How bad would it be if something happened?” is a trickier question because the consequences can be both tangible and subjective. For example, a breach that causes your organization to lose money from its bank account is easy to count and to characterize within the context of the overall budget. But if that breach is publicly known, how will attitudes about your organization change? Will people still trust you to take their donations? Will they continue to invest in your programs? And this is one of the more straightforward scenarios. How would you weigh the exposure of emails that outline your advocacy strategy? How bad is it if your donors’ names and home addresses are exposed?

Also, don’t forget to consider the possibility that old equipment and software can put you at risk. You might have tools that are rarely used and don’t contain much important information. Good candidates for the “nonessential data” pile, right? Probably, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore old technology. In fact, it may pose a bigger security risk than the tools you use everyday. If old software or equipment is connected to your network, it can be a weak link that provides a way in for hackers. If losing a piece of technology is no great loss, you should consider getting rid of it.

Managing an incident

A security incident can happen at any organization, not only because hackers are indiscriminate but also because human error is the most likely cause of data loss or exposure. It’s not hard for someone to accidently delete a file. And most of us are guilty of taking files home and working on them on machines or networks that are much less secure than what we use at work.

The policies and culture of your organization are important factors in preventing an incident. Every organization should have a written guide that outlines the steps it will need to take when a data breach or other kind of security incident occurs. In your guide, you’ll need to think through:

  • What mechanisms are in place to detect a security incident?
  • Who will document the events leading up to and immediately following when the breach was discovered?
  • Who will lead the response if a breach occurs?
  • Who will be part of the response team?
  • How will you respond to various scenarios?
  • How will your response team communicate with the rest of the organization?
  • How will your organization recover files or repair systems?
  • How will your organization communicate with your constituents (if necessary)?

Your incident response guide could be as simple as a list of a few of the most likely scenarios and bullet points outlining roles and responsibilities. What’s important is to have enough of a plan in place so that if something were to happen, you and your team aren’t left wondering what to do.

Data security can seem scary, but it doesn’t have to be. One way to reduce the stress and gain expertise is to establish a relationship with an IT consultant that has some background in security. However you choose to approach security, keep in mind that perfect security will never be possible, but every organization can take practical steps that will significantly reduce the chances of a major data breach.

Learn more

For insights into nonprofit data security, download Idealware’s recent report: “What Nonprofits Need to Know About Security: A Practical Guide to Managing Risk.

When many people think about measuring the impact of their nonprofit organization’s programs, they often think about service delivery metrics, website visits, or social media campaign statistics. While these metrics are good “proxies” for program impact, they may not be ideal in adequately capturing the long-term effects of public programs. This often results in undervaluing, and therefore under-appreciating, a number of programs that are designed to benefit the public. Information technology and recent methodological advances in the social sciences field has enabled program evaluators to overcome many of the hindrances in adequately measuring program impacts. One measurement approach that allows program evaluators to more robustly measure program impact is “Social Network Analysis.”

Imagine a Healthcare Program…

To appreciate the value of Social Network Analysis (SNA) program impact analysis, let’s use the example of a hypothetical program that is designed to promote access to healthcare among a medically underserved population. Assume that such a program planned to reach the target population through a website. A website tracking system would enable a program evaluator to find how many visited the website. These website visitors will certainly benefit from the information that they are exposed to and will likely utilize the healthcare resource that they are now aware of. However, there are some people who may not have access to computers and are therefore unable to visit the informational website. Some of those individuals, however, may know others who accessed the website information and may therefore be indirectly exposed to the information that was shared on the website. This may result in their use of the resource highlighted on the website. Information sharing creates a communication network as the information moves from one person to another.

In the above scenario, using the website visitation log to represent the program’s reach will most certainly underestimate the program’s value. By capturing and measuring both the direct and indirect channels through which stakeholders obtain information, a Social Network Analysis approach can improve the evaluation strategy to effectively overcome the limitation that is observed in the above project example.

What Is Social Network Analysis?

Social Network Analysis is “the process of investigating social structures through the use of network and graph theories.” The American Evaluation Association’s Social Network Analysis Topical Interest Group site defines SNA as “a methodology for studying relational or relationship data and is grounded in understanding and applying the methodology within a context of networks.” As relationships evolve, a network forms of connections and this network forms a unique structure. Relationships can vary from communication, support, trade, and access to resources.

Researchers who use this approach focus on identifying, representing and measuring relationships between individuals. They represent individual actors using symbols that are called “nodes.” They represent the ties between the individuals using lines that they call “edges.”

As you can see, the approach allows for the tracing of the path of information, like new ideas and the flow of such information through the “grapevine” created by the “edges” of the network. We can also see how clusters form and where clusters connect to each other. Capturing such a rich landscape of information diffusion is made possible by modern information technology.

While experts are looking to better understand and visualize relationships with free and open source tools like Gephi and NodeXL, as a beginner, you can give Socilab a try. Socilab is a free tool that you use in conjunction with LinkedIn to better understand, among other things, the effective size, density and network constraint of your professional relationships.

So now that you’ve received an introduction to SNA, here are additional resources to help you continue your learning:

Image Source: “About Data Mining

Compelling facts have always been a key ingredient in winning policy campaigns, and the rise of web technology has opened the floodgates for data that would have been out of reach to all but the most dogged advocates just 20 years ago.

But while we are awash in data, it is often like Coleridge’s famous line: “Water, water, everywhere; nor any drop to drink.” The sheer volume of data is overwhelming, and the data that are accessible are often not the right data. Advocates working for equity—just and fair inclusion for all—need data that are broken down by race, age, geography, income, and other dimensions. They also need a way to frame the data: a narrative that explains how and why these inequities matter.

As an organization founded to advance economic and social equity through policy change, PolicyLink is working to fill this need and equip changemakers with a data-backed narrative to help them win.

Equity Is the Superior Growth Model

About five years ago, Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, saw the kernels of a new and powerful narrative for equity advocates. The 2010 Census results were out, and they showed that the country was continuing to grow more diverse. Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street movement was bringing inequality to the public’s attention; new research was showing how rising inequality was a risk not just for those being left behind, but for the growth and prosperity of entire regions and nations.

Angela wove these threads together into a new story about the centrality of racial and economic inclusion not only as a moral imperative—which it continues to be—but as an economic one. America is bolting toward having a multiracial, people-of-color majority within just a few decades. Our growing, diverse workforce and population are tremendous assets in the global economy—one that can only be fully manifested if people of color can access the resources and opportunities they need to participate in and contribute to growth and democracy. Dismantling lingering racial barriers and creating pathways to educational and economic security and success is critical to their future, the future of their communities, and the country as a whole. The take-home message: equity is the superior growth model.

Building a Data-Backed Narrative

Data was at the heart of this framing from the beginning. Recognizing the importance of disaggregated and regularly updated data to keep the message fresh and give it legs, PolicyLink joined forces with the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California (PERE). PERE is a research and policy shop headed by Dr. Manuel Pastor, a prominent researcher, speaker, and writer on issues of changing demographics, racial equity, and the economy. PERE conducts all kinds of research, but our partnership drew on their deep bench strength in quantitative research and the development, maintenance, and facility with large datasets.

Our team worked together to produce a framing paper, America’s Tomorrow: Equity Is the Superior Growth Model, that bolstered the narrative with powerful statistics, maps, and charts and shared it with our networks of advocates and the broader world.

Going Local: Tailoring the Narrative to Regional Realities

The national story was critical for starting this narrative shift work, but we knew that advocates and policymakers needed data for their own communities to put it to use. PERE painstakingly built the data infrastructure to make that possible, drawing from multiple data sources, including historical economic data and demographic projections, aligning this data to consistently-defined boundaries for 202 geographies: the 150 largest regions, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the United States as a whole.

Equipped with this data, we began working with collaborations of local leaders who were developing regional sustainability plans. In about a dozen diverse counties, regions, and states, we produced Equity Profiles, which document their changing demographics and performance on a host of equity indicators. The profiles helped these changemakers understand the trends, link these trends to the experiences of their community members, and develop shared narratives about how and why equity and inclusion matter to their economic futures.

From the Heartland metros of Omaha and Kansas City to diverse, high-growth regions like Miami and Houston, demographic change was a salient issue. Even in predominantly-White communities, Latinos, Asians, African Americans and other communities of color are usually driving population growth, replenishing the workforce as Baby Boomers retire and breathing new life into disinvested commercial corridors. Combining this demographic data with metrics showing how different groups are excelling—or in many cases, being left behind—on key indicators of economic success, health, education, and more was a good starting point for having productive local discussions about race, equity, and opportunity.

Coming together around the data helped these collaborations grow stronger, identify areas of focus, and bring on new partners. In Rhode Island, the profile led directly to policy action. After seeing how communities of color were responsible for all of the state’s population growth yet faced major barriers to economic opportunity, then-Governor Chafee opened a new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Opportunity focused on inclusive hiring and contracting in government jobs.

The local data strengthened our own advocacy as well. In California, the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, which we coordinate, married economic imperative data and messaging with the voices of youth leaders to successfully win a slate of state policies that reform harmful “zero tolerance” school discipline approaches, invest in career pathways for men returning from prison, and more. As youth advocate Angel Diaz put it, “If adults look at young people as assets to be developed instead of problems to solve, we can change the future.” We found that the mix of data, narrative, and testimonials is a potent advocacy tool.

Democratizing Data via the National Equity Atlas

From the beginning, our goal was to democratize this data and make it widely available to advocates and policymakers. Released last October, the National Equity Atlas is a one-of-a-kind resource to track, measure, and make the case for inclusive growth at the local, state, and national level.

The Atlas shares detailed data disaggregated by race, nativity, education, income, and more through a user-friendly interface. At the click of a button, you can access 29 field-tested indicators of demographic change, racial and economic inclusion, and the economic benefits of equity for 301 geographies. Nearly all of the indicators are difficult to find elsewhere, and some are completely unique. For example, we calculated the total potential economic gains to regions and states (in terms of GDP) if there had been no racial inequities in income in 2012. This metric has proven to be a powerful tool for advocates. The recent Ferguson Commission report, for example, cited Atlas data in noting that the St. Louis economy could have been 10 percent larger ($14 billion) if it achieved racial equity in income.

The “equity is the superior growth model” narrative is embedded throughout the site, providing context for how the metrics shared matter for equitable growth, along with policy ideas, real-world examples of those policies in action, and links to additional data and policy resources.

As a living resource, the Atlas will continue to evolve and improve. For example, in October 2015, PolicyLink expanded the Atlas to include data for the 100 largest cities. More indicators and data cuts are in the works, including the disaggregation of the Asian population by country of origin—an essential nuance for revealing the differing realities for subpopulations. We are also upgrading our mapping technology and will soon be able to share census tract level data for some of our indicators, allowing users to better understand the geography of inequity across the neighborhoods within their cities and regions.

Beyond further developing the Atlas as a tool, we are committed to helping changemakers use the data to drive policy advocacy and implementation. PolicyLink launched a new All-In Cities initiative at Equity Summit 2015, a national conference we held in Los Angeles from October 27 to 29. This effort will empower city officials, community advocates, and other civic leaders with the policy ideas, data, and hands-on assistance they need to advance racial economic inclusion and equitable growth in their cities. We are excited to work with advocates to bolster their campaigns with compelling facts that build political and public will, and to help city leaders inside and outside of government use disaggregated data to track and monitor equity results and progress.

Data itself is not social change. But data combined with a story can power the bolder, smarter, more targeted strategies communities need to leverage their diversity as an asset and secure a bright economic future for all of their residents.

One month after posting Small Data & Parvenu Analysts, I taught a 5-hour Excel workshop at the AMP Conference. 12 students signed up, and some dragged themselves in as if they could no longer avoid their Excel medicine. But I appreciated each and every one of them, because they had options to take courses that were more central to their job titles. The volunteer coordinator could have spent 5 hours in another workshop learning about recruiting volunteers; the content strategist could have learned about a new social media platform. But they decided to invest 5 hours in learning a tool that they all constantly use: Excel.

Near the end, one of the students posed a question this way:

I’m a volunteer coordinator and we sometimes set daily goals. Is it possible for Excel to automatically show a picture of happy Drake if we’re meeting our goals; and a picture of sad Drake if we’re behind?

That question was electrifying!

  1. He was thinking in terms of integration and automation of Excel’s features. He had gone beyond dry formulas and was asking if data updates in one area can manipulate pictures in another area.
  2. More than just getting the math right, he was asking if fun could be injected with visuals.
  3. He asked the question is it possible? rather than assuming that it’s not possible.

That kind of thinking can set a parvenu analyst up for success. To be fair, the doing of the task may be too complex to make the possibility worth pursuing, but often, the answer is a very easy yes.

I remember someone who was used to re-typing dozens of names each month because of a report that sent new data to him in all-caps. He’d been doing this for a year until he discovered the PROPER function which puts text into “proper” formatting. He almost fell out of his chair when he saw that PROPER instantly fixed something that he’d accepted as an ongoing source of misery.


Sad Drake or Happy Drake?

Now what about the student who asked if Excel could automatically show happy or sad Drake based on volunteer performance?

I think ‘Drake’ is in reference to the rapper Drake. Even if there’s another Drake, the answer is “YES!!!”

As a result of the student’s question, I created this video, Select and Image Based on a Cell Value.

I’ve also implemented that feature in something I call a Naughty-Nice-Ometer. It measures if children are being naughty or nice, and the number of days until Christmas. If a child has negative points, the Naughty-Nice-Ometer shows a picture of Krampus. If the child is being nice, a picture of Santa Claus is showing.

You can see a demo of the Naughty-Nice-Ometer in this video: Excel Tools for Planning Christmas.



For a team that’s relying on accurate data, fixing all-caps and adding pictures of Drake and Santa Claus aren’t exactly hardcore analyses. What’s most important, however, is the thought process: asking the questions to get access to working smarter and generating easy-to-understand (and creative) summaries.

When we find people who can approach data from this mindset, it doesn’t matter if they’ve had extensive experience working with data or Excel. They can learn the how-to. Those are the people we want in charge of our data. You’ll know it when that picture of happy Drake is on a spreadsheet, letting all the world know that the volunteers are meeting their goals.