Tag: Leadership

Like all nonprofits, Tech Impact continually struggles to balance cybersecurity against cost, time, and user frustration. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of room for error! With access to hundreds of nonprofits’ systems, Tech Impact is an attractive target for criminals, activist hackers, and even government agencies. We take our mission seriously and put as much as we are able to secure our environments.

On the other hand, as security experts ourselves, we are quick to spot the difference between what “they say” you should do and what actually makes us more secure. In this post, I’ll share a subset of our security practices so that you too can do more than check the box.


You’ve heard it before (probably from us) but having written policies is an essential part of any cybersecurity strategy. The trick is to have a specific goal in mind for every policy and to keep the document itself short and to the point. Here are some of the goals and policies that your organization should likely have:

Goal Policy
Be able to hold staff accountable if they use systems or computers in an inappropriate way. Acceptable Use Policy
Educate staff about how to store and share sensitive information Data Sharing & Storage Policy
Make sure risky data isn’t kept forever Retention Policy
Educate staff about how to create, manage, and share passwords Password Policy
Ensure staff understand the potential ramifications (wiping devices if staff leave) of using a personal device for work activities Bring Your Own Device Policy
Prevent staff from transferring money or data based on impersonated emails. Approval Process for Bank & HR Data Transfer
Limit the number of administrators in our systems Administrative Access Policy

One goal of our policies is to allow us to discipline staff who won’t take security seriously. But generally speaking, we don’t expect our policies to guarantee that our staff stays safe. Instead, we use them to educate staff about how to be safe using the tools available to them.


To get staff actually to be safe, we rely much more on training and awareness. Being secure means making the right decisions dozens of times a day. Every time we email a client or share a file, we have to evaluate the risk and take appropriate safety measures. The high frequency of these decisions means that we can’t expect our staff to look up and follow complex policies.

Instead, we teach folks regularly about who might want to attack us, why those attackers are interested in us, and how those attacks are likely to happen. By educating about our actual threats instead of imagined or possible risks, we keep our staff paying attention. That’s why we focus on password strength, phishing attacks, and impersonation attacks and not on protecting against NSA EMF monitoring.

At Tech Impact, our learning culture doesn’t lend itself to formal training. Besides some mandatory training for staff dealing with sensitive data (like HIPAA-regulated data), we mostly don’t force our staff to sit down for training. Instead, we regularly send emails and chat messages to the team with information about attacks we have intercepted or articles that seem relevant. This constant drip of information keeps folks on their toes.

One formal approach we do recommend is to use a third-party phishing penetration service like KnowBe4. Using the service, you can send your staff simulated phishing emails. Folks who fail the tests (by handing over their username and password) can be required to complete additional security training.


Between our policies and constant communication, our staff is definitely paying attention! But paying attention isn’t enough by itself if folks don’t know what to do when they encounter something suspicious. At Tech Impact we’re lucky to have a resident security team. Our staff has been trained to forward emails or send questions to the team anytime they are worried about something that came in. By making it easy to report an issue and get help, we have dramatically increased engagement and often prevent staff from taking risky action.

For your organization, this might mean sending one person to security training, or it might mean sending questions to your support provider. However, you approach this make sure to keep a record of the kinds of questions and issues that come in so that you can identify trends and create better training.


Only now is it worth talking about technology. In truth, technology is important but not enough. Staff and attackers will always find a way to get around anything you put in place. Your best bet (at least for organizations that aren’t facing activist hackers or hostile governments) is to focus on policies, training, and escalation.

But if you’ve handled the basics, or if you are at particular risk, technology can absolutely help your organization stay safe. There are lots of resources out there about cybersecurity technology, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. But I will share with you some of the tools that we use. Note that this is only a portion of the technologies we use at Tech Impact to stay safe.

For Everyone

Some of the cybersecurity tools we use are foundational and should be used by every single nonprofit out there. Nothing listed here is particularly complicated or expensive, so don’t wait!

  • Software Updates & Anti-Malware: You should know this by now, but most malware-based attacks use known issues that have already been patched. Keeping your computers up to date and using Anti-Malware software is a foundational need for every nonprofit.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): The single most effective thing you can do to keep your organization safe from account compromise. In addition to a username and password, your staff uses a separate code from an app or SMS text message to log into systems. This will almost eliminate the risk of phishing attacks.
  • Single Sign-On: Use Office 365, Google Apps, Okta, or another cloud identity provider to let your users log into all your systems with a single username and password. This enables you to enforce MFA across all your tools and lock all accounts down from once place. Any software you’re using that supports the SAML standard can be integrated for Single Sign-On
  • Device Encryption: Encrypt your devices so that no one can read data off them even if they are lost or stolen. This is free and easy for Android, iOS, Mac OS, and most Windows computers!

For Many

For organizations that have some compliance needs (HIPPA, etc.) or are dealing with otherwise sensitive information, there are some basic tools that can make a big difference without a considerable cost.

  • End-to-End Encrypted Email: Allows you to send social security numbers, healthcare information, passwords, and other sensitive information via email. You send a standard email, but recipients get a simple email with instructions to use a secure web portal to respond.
  • Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Scanning: Scans outbound email, shared files, or files stored in semi-public locations for sensitive information like social security numbers or bank account information. This is an essential backup to your policies educating folks on how to safely store and transmit data.
  • Device Management: Lets you monitor devices remotely and make sure that they are kept up-to-date, encrypted, and secure. It also allows you to wipe them remotely if they are lost or stolen.

For a Few

There are a lot of things we do at Tech Impact because we are at high risk. These aren’t things I would recommend for everyone.

  • Conditional Access: Prevent devices from downloading files or syncing data if they aren’t enrolled in your device management platform. This keeps the staff from saving data to devices that aren’t encrypted or that you don’t own.
  • Advanced Multi-Factor Authentication: Text-message based multi-factor authentication is not secure against a determined hacker. We use code-based MFA from our mobile phones and are exploring U2F and certificate-based MFA to make ourselves even more secure.
  • Centralized Log Analysis: We send all of our logs to a system that looks for unusual behavior. If someone logs in from an unusual location or downloads more files than usual, our security team gets an alert and can investigate.

Wrapping Up

As a technology nonprofit, we know that there are limits to what technology can do to keep us safe. That’s why we use this multi-layered approach that includes policies, education, escalation, and technology. Staying safe is a constant balancing act, and it’s important to remember that some action is always better than no action.

Demand for social good services is rising faster than organizations can meet it. To fund your mission, you need to know where your organization stands compared to your peers.

In this white paper — created in partnership with the Blackbaud Institute and NetHope — we’ll explore the value of collaborative benchmarking to comparatively measure your performance against peer organizations. By understanding your position in the sector, you can:

  • Prioritize resources according to your organization’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Ensure that you invest in programs which will lead to organizational growth
  • Enhance collaboration across the social good sector for stronger mission delivery
  • Download the white paper to find out how you can make the most of your benchmarking opportunity!

Download the report from the Blackbaud Institute and begin collaborating today.

Earlier this year, NTEN rolled out an improved Tech Accelerate. This free benchmarking tool connects your organization to resources to help you understand where to invest in improving your technology plans, policies, and infrastructure.

This spring, we’re expanding this commitment by offering additional support for you to evaluate your technology, get direct, expert advice from community members, and apply for a small grant to begin your improvements.

Community Call on May 9

Complete your organization’s free Tech Accelerate Assessment by Tuesday, May 7, and you’ll receive access to an exclusive Community Call with an expert panel to give advice and recommendations about your results. The panel includes Emilio Arocho, Kayleigh Collins, and others whose diverse perspectives and tech backgrounds can provide guidance to move you and your organization forward.

The Community Call is free to join but reserved for organizations with completed Tech Accelerate Assessments — those with completed Assessments will be emailed access details prior to the Community Call at 2pm ET/11am PT, Thursday, May 9.

$1,000 grants available for completed Assessments

Organizations that complete their free Tech Accelerate Assessment by Tuesday, May 7 —whether they participate in the Community Call or not— can apply for a $1,000 grant to invest in improving your organization’s technology effectiveness. A $1,000 grant may be a small piece of the project budget you need, but we hope it is a start and an incentive to move ahead.

Applications for the grants will be emailed to all organizations with completed Assessments. The deadline to apply is Monday, May 27.

Tech Accelerate Demo on May 2

Need a refresher on what Tech Accelerate is, and how it could benefit your organization? Join me and NTEN web developer Dan Fellini for a free demo at 2pm ET/11am PT, Thursday, May 2. You’ll learn more about how and why we built Tech Accelerate, and how you can use it to evaluate your organization’s current technology investments and plans.

You can complete your Tech Accelerate report with colleagues to ensure the most accurate assessment of your organization, so we encourage you to invite others to join you for this webinar.

Organizations have used Tech Accelerate to make budgeting decisions, lead staff and board in planning discussions, and to inform a technology roadmap for the organization. All staff connected to your organization’s profile in their NTEN account can collaborate on an Assessment together, so get started today!

We’ve heard from numerous partners and individuals within the NTEN community interested in learning more about our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As our CEO Amy Sample Ward noted here, “We will continue to move forward so we can better be part of the world we want to see and meet our own vision of a more just and engaged world.”

If your organization is preparing to take similar steps, here’s a helpful outline below for planning and structuring your workplace goals.

This article was originally published by The Management Center. It is republished here with permission.

Goals are a concrete way to drive results, but how can you be sure to do it equitably? Introducing… SMARTIE goals! Adding an equity and inclusion component (that’s the IE part!) to your SMART goals is like putting avocado on a sandwich—come for the health benefits, stay for the life-changing impact (and don’t ever go without it again)!

For a goal to be effective in driving an organization’s performance, it needs to be:

Strategic – It reflects an important dimension of what your organization seeks to accomplish (programmatic or capacity-building priorities).
Measurable – It includes standards by which reasonable people can agree on whether the goal has been met (by numbers or defined qualities).
Ambitious – It’s challenging enough that achievement would mean significant progress; a “stretch” for the organization.
Realistic – It’s not so challenging as to indicate lack of thought about resources or execution; possible to track and worth the time and energy to do so.
Time-bound – It includes a clear deadline.
Inclusive – It brings traditionally marginalized people—particularly those most impacted—into processes, activities, and decision/policy-making in a way that shares power.
Equitable – It includes an element of fairness or justice that seeks to address systemic injustice, inequity, or oppression.

Here’s an example of a SMART goal turned SMARTIE:




By incorporating IE into your goals, you can make sure that your organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is anchored by tangible and actionable steps. There’s a fine line between inclusion and tokenism. What’s the difference? Power. In most cases, it’s not enough to tack on “…and x number of volunteers/new hires/spokespeople should be people of color” unless the people you’re trying to include will be able to influence the work in a meaningful way.

SMARTIE goals are about including marginalized communities in a way that shares power, shrinks disparities, and leads to more equitable outcomes.

Want to get started? Download this SMARTIE goals worksheet.

You wear many hats when you work for a nonprofit. I’m sure this is not breaking news for you. As an IT professional, the one hat that I wear every day is my “communications” hat.

The following tips are bite-sized truffles of hard-earned wisdom intended to help the IT professional communicate with staff members more clearly about technology projects.

1. Be an active listener

Have you ever been thinking of what you are going to say while you are looking directly at the person who is talking and giving you information you asked for? We have all done this. Seriously, active listening is a difficult skill that requires full concentration and practice.

The best definition of active listening I have found is, “the act of mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend the meaning of words spoken by another in a conversation or speech.” This means that you look at the person who is speaking in the eyes (not in a creepy way) and focus your mind on the words they are speaking.

Active listening works best when you, the listener, review and restate what was said: a recap. Something like, “Okay, let me see if I understand correctly. So you need a membership report of all Californian constituents over the age of 45 by next Wednesday? Is that correct?” Active listening saves time, reduces stress, increases your colleagues’ confidence in you, and decreases the margin of error. It also takes a lot of practice, so start today!

2. Use plain English

Yes, plain English (sometimes called plain language) is a thing. The goal of plain English is to communicate in a simple way using common language so your message is easily understood. Simply put: use easy-to-understand language and cut the technical terms if you can.

Remember, the goal is not to display your vast knowledge of technology and look smart. We have all had an experience when a tech person totally spoke over our heads using tech jargon. That is exactly what we want to avoid. It is our job, as the communicator and tech professional, to make sure the recipient understands your message. Much like being an active listener, end your conversation with a recap to make sure that all topics have been covered and understood, and expectations have been set.

3. Set expectations right away

Misunderstandings happen but they can be minimized. It is always uncomfortable when you are working on rolling out a project on Monday that everyone expected last Tuesday. It’s stressful just thinking about that scenario.

One way to minimize misunderstanding is to set clear expectations right away. Expectations are not just what they should expect from you, but also what you expect from them. For tasks and smaller projects, a quick but thorough recap should do the job. I created a web form to keep track of my requests (see tip #4 below) and I have my colleagues fill it out every time they have a request – even if we had a meeting. For large projects, I suggest you draft a project charter and have all stakeholders sign off approving the project. For more on project charters, do an internet search for “project charter template.”

4. Set up a system and stick to it

We all like to be the hero and fix the problem right away. Whether you are a project manager, solo IT person, or an IT Director, your time is limited and you must prioritize in order to make deadlines.

The way I keep track of my requests is by using a web form. All my colleagues must complete this form and they must spell out what they want and how urgent the request is. I established an internal policy that all requests must be approved by a supervisor prior to submitting the web form request. This gives the staff member time to thoroughly review their requests resulting in a more complete form and fewer questions. This process may seem kind of corporate but it works for me.

5. Make no assumptions

Early in my previous career in sales, a mentor said to me, “If you were giving travel directions on the best way to get to your office, what would be your first question? Where are they coming from? You would give different directions to someone who is traveling from Portland than the person who is driving from San Francisco.”

The same goes for providing technology solutions. You must find out where your people are coming from before you start to provide instructions.

You also may want to confirm if they know where they are going! Knowing the end goal is always very important. Many of us miss this step; we assume that the person we are communicating with is tech savvy. Take the time to find out and make no assumptions.

6. Use standard operating procedures

We all use standard operating procedures (SOPs), right? If you do not, you need to get on it! SOPs are comprehensive instructions that are so clear, you could hand the instructions to a first-day employee and they would be able to perform the given task.

SOPs take a while to write but once done, they will save you hours of time. Make sure to include lots of pictures, arrows, comments, and tips and make sure to update them when processes change. I recommend using Snagit Screen Capture by TechSmith to snip and insert notes of anything on your screen. There are many free tools out there, including the free Microsoft Snipping Tool. I encourage readers do a little research to find the best tool for their needs.

7. Use your tech tools

Do you want to look like a technology rock star? Than you have to stay on top of your respective field by staying up to date with blogs, newsletters, old school print magazines and most definitely the NTEN community. Two tools that I use daily are Google Search Operators and Google Advanced Search. This will narrow down and speed up your search times tremendously.


The ability to communicate clearly and effectively will never go out of style. These seven tips have helped me and I hope they help you also.

Most people will say security is important, but if pressed, chances are they don’t really know what that means. What is IT security, exactly, and what’s the worst that can happen? Most pressingly: How can often cash-strapped nonprofit organizations keep their information—and their clients’ or donors’ information—safe and sound?

Leon WilsonLeon Wilson, Chief for Digital Innovation & Chief Information Officer for the Cleveland Foundation and past NTEN Lifetime Achievement Award winner, is leading an online NTEN course on security basics for nonprofits: Intro to IT Security, in May. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about IT security and the special considerations for nonprofit organizations.

Why are nonprofits at greater risk of information breaches and other hacks?

Because hackers know that they’re easy prey; that is, they presume that nonprofits not only don’t have a sophisticated or a secure environment as say a bank or hospital, but that they aren’t even performing the basics well enough. Also, nonprofits have a trove of donor and client information that can be pilfered for identity theft and social media trolling.

What are the potential consequences to nonprofits and their clients?

Loss of trust between the nonprofit and their client that can lead to loss of donors/donations and loss of business/clients wanting to work with the nonprofit.

What are a few things that nonprofits can do to assess their risk?

1) Hire a credible IT consultant to perform a comprehensive IT security & risk assessment; 2) Identify any compliancy regulations they must conform to (e.g. HIPPA, PCI-DSS, Personally Identifiable Information (PII) pertaining to kids).

Why is having an IT security strategy important?

Most, if not all, IT security experts will tell you that these days, it’s not a matter if you’ve been hacked, but when. It’s nearly inevitable in this day and age. Therefore, having a “constantly” current IT security strategy is akin to being a fiscally responsible organization.

What’s the first step that at-risk nonprofits should take to improve their practices?

I can’t say it enough: You don’t know how bad of a situation you have until you assess the situation. Thus, the first step is for nonprofit leadership to take IT security seriously and have a IT security assessment performed. A good IT security assessment should not only identify your vulnerabilities, but rank them by severity. Tackle the severe ones first.

What is the number one pitfall or roadblock for nonprofits implementing an IT security policy?

Unfortunately, it’s a four-way tie: a) lack of awareness, b) not knowing who to turn to for help; that is, finding a good IT security consultant that will help them identify and plug any holes without going overboard, c) lack of finances to perform a good IT security assessment, and d) funding to implement those changes warranting additional technology solutions and consulting work.

View our courses page to find the next Intro to IT Security course with Leon.

Johanna Bates is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

Back in 1999, I was a college graduate with a B.A. in the always-lucrative field of Religious Studies. I got a job at a small, nonprofit publishing house in Boston as a writer for their book catalogs. They had mentioned in the job description it’d be “nice” if the person knew HTML. I got the job by teaching myself enough HTML in one night to write my cover letter as a web page. That was the first time I’d ever made a whole web page myself. I never expected where that one HTML document would lead.

I did write a lot of words about books at that job. I also built them a 500+ page hand-coded book catalog in HTML. At first, I tried to tell them that I didn’t really know what I was doing, but they didn’t care. They had someone mentor me, and it was great. I learned a lot and really enjoyed it. But “technologist” was never in my job title or formally in the job description, and my salary was far too low to cover a writer and a half-time web developer, even back then.

What are “accidental techies,” and why is there an NTC session about them?

If you’ve been around the nonprofit technology scene for a while, you might have heard the term “accidental techie.” You might identify with it, you might be tired of it. In any case, the term is important, because it describes a group of people who, for better or worse, are a driving force in the nonprofit sector. They are the program coordinators, marketing staff, or other workers who are not hired to maintain websites, fix databases, or set up CRMs, but who end up doing it because their organization has a need, and they have the aptitude and interest. They are often under-recognized and underpaid. Organizations, their mission goals, their workers, and the nonprofit sector as a whole are best served when accidental techies advocate for themselves, formalize their job functions, and grow in their careers. This is what we’ll be talking about in our NTC session.

Why are accidental techies so good for the nonprofit sector?

The field of technology lacks racial, cultural and gender diversity, and the “pipeline” of people with formal tech training hasn’t yet radically improved. Accidental techies, however, are often women, people of color, and others who may not have had the means, support, or encouragement to pursue a formal computer science degree. And technical work needs more than just demographic diversity. Whether we come to technical work from a background in retail, teaching elementary school, food service, journalism, or whatever, we have unique experiences that inform the way we see everything, including technical work. The more different perspectives we can bring to technology work, the better off we’ll all be.

Why are accidental techies bad for the nonprofit sector?

Nonprofit organizations may be mission-driven, but at the end of the day, they are still businesses. When a competent worker is fixing a broken website in their “spare time”, but isn’t speaking up and advocating for themselves, the org may not notice that they need to support that worker with training and a new role. The cost of the work that person is providing to the organization is obscured. When people are not supported to grow, they will eventually leave the organization. Or worse, they may stay, and become bitter and burned out. If the organization has been underpaying someone to do technical work, it’s going to be a lot harder to replace that lost staff member. Hiding the true cost of doing business sets up an unhealthy cycle of reactive, instead of proactive, business. In the long run, that’s not good for anyone.

If I’m accidentally in a technical role, and I’d like to get intentional about my career path, what can I do?

Whether you’re new to this role or not, feeling stuck or already on your way, please join me, Tracy Kronzak, Jessie Lee, and Cindy Leonard at our 17NTC session From Accidental to Intentional: Taking Your NPtech Career to the Next Level. We’re planning a participatory session with group discussions, resource sharing, and networking.

Quick survey: What are your big challenges?

Whether you plan to attend the NTC or not, we’d love to hear from you. What are some of the challenges you currently face in growing in your tech career? Please take a couple minutes to let us know via this short survey. Thank you!  

To the incredible and dynamic NTEN community and nonprofit sector,

We hear you.

We hear so many people from the community expressing fear, anticipation, anxiety, and even hope. Little of the emotions of today has to do with the man who is our next president. Instead, those feelings being posted on social media, email, and in private text messages are rooted in a reality that we cannot ignore now: We live in a deeply, troublingly divided country.

As we listen to so many of you today, we ask that each of us take time to intentionally listen to those around us – our friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors – regardless of the candidate they voted for. We do not address our divisions by hunkering down, talking only to those we know already share our beliefs, and planning for a future time of action. We address our divisions and create stronger ties by listening first, finding shared ground, and recommitting ourselves every day to the belief that we all do want a better America and to create it we all must take action every, single day.

We see you.

We see so many people in the nonprofit sector, in our local communities, in our service networks responding to the election result with the impulse to withdraw, to hide – some out of fear of what others will say to them because they support the elected candidate, some for fear of what could happen when campaign rhetoric turns into policies. We cannot offer solace but we can say that we see you, we appreciate you, we believe that we all want a better America and we commit to working with you to make it.

As we witness your reactions, we do not expect you all to stand bravely because for many in our communities there is still too much risk. Instead, we ask that for those of us who do not fear the impacts of the election on our own personal lives, for those of us with access to power and privilege, that we take a stand for the rest of our fellow Americans. Using your power to hold our elected officials, our communities, and ourselves accountable to the policies and principles that support a better America for every member of our community.

In times of celebration, in times of challenge, and in times of decision-making we turn to our values. As always, they offer both reminders and guideposts to direct our actions today and into the future:

We are practical dreamers. We are the community of nonprofit technology professionals. We are a stage and platform for you. We are accountable to you. We strive to be authentic and honest. We embrace change. We walk the talk. We believe that laughter, irreverence, fun, and a deep joy about what is possible are essential to our work.

We were a community yesterday. We are a community today. We will be a community tomorrow.

In your service and strength,

Amy Sample Ward and the team at NTEN


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 2015, business intelligence software became more accessible and less expensive for nonprofits. This really couldn’t have come at a better time because grantmakers are also expecting more analysis to ensure funds are spent wisely.

The use of business intelligence will continue to grow and evolve in 2016.  Two major trends will be:

  1. Using business intelligence to measure outcomes instead of participation. For example, determining which events led to increased engagement or donations amongst participants will be more important than measuring the number of participants at your events.

  2. Using business intelligence to predict outcomes and find trends. With new tools on the market like Google’s new prediction API, nonprofits can use historical data to predict outcomes of future marketing and  social media campaigns.

Infographics and data visualizations are everywhere. Your board and colleagues are sending you articles with charts and recommending you do things based on a tweet and a cool graph. Like everyone, you like these sparkly visualizations, but you hesitate to make changes to your organization based on a few interactive circle graphs. What can you do and how will this add value?

If you are like most nonprofit executives, you didn’t start working in the nonprofit sector to analyze data but instead to change the world with your mission. You’ve done well in the past based on your intuition and feedback from your constituents. Learning about business intelligence (BI) and applying it to your nonprofit’s mission wasn’t something you thought you’d ever do, but you are starting to realize that it’s time: time to start learning about business intelligence and how it can help you and your organization achieve your unique goals.

Business intelligence is, at its core, analysis aimed at determining the key performance indicators that drive your organization’s success and what your organization can do to affect those indicators. I have short video definition and nonprofit example here.

We hope that those who attended our 15NTC session started using BI in their organizations and have since reaped the benefits with: (1) a better understanding of BI and its value; (2) two or three action items that start immediately; and (3) an idea of appropriate tools for their organizations.

Our session was theory- and technology-light and example-heavy.

Some of the specific topics we covered:

  • BI basics: A few simple real-world examples to get familiar with the key terms, what they mean, and why they are important
  • Key performance indicators (KPIs): Why KPIs are critical to your organization’s success and mission and how to use business intelligence to determine what drives an organization’s KPIs
  • Finding the KPIs in one’s organization: Although every nonprofit is unique, many have similar KPIs
  • Driving the results: Determining what individuals can do to affect the key drivers of the organization is why business intelligence is important.


  • Software:  To get started with BI, you don’t need any special software. In fact, we recommend that you wait to purchase any software until you have a better sense of your organization’s specific needs.
  • Data visualization: Infographics, interactive graphs, and charts can be excellent ways to provide critical measurements in a way that others can quickly understand and relate. Creating these visualizations for your key data points will enable you to communicate them effectively to key constituents so that they understand what is important to your organization


  • Expect failure: Understanding what drives success in your organization is tough stuff, and you should not expect to get it right the first time. Expect failure, but also expect to learn from it. It is important to measure and adjust periodically
  • Common pitfalls: It’s critical to learn how to recognize and avoid them

Lisa and I were very excited to lead this session and share with folks what we’ve learned while working together on business intelligence at the West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church. We also shared one of our latest BI inspired tools, “Breakthrough Goals,” as well as our processes, struggles, wins, and frustrations.