Nonprofit Data Users: 3 Challenges to Overcome

Whether you're trying to sell cars, cola or causes, data is the hot topic these days. In the private sector, Big Data is transforming how businesses operate, enabling them to use social media and analytics to determine consumer interests and recommend products. Increasingly, nonprofits are also realizing the value of gathering good data about our donors, clients and programs, and using that information to maximize impact and build deeper connections with audiences.

At the 7th African Evaluation Association International Conference earlier this month in Cameroon, I listened closely as evaluation practitioners shared how they use data to get farmers real-time information on market prices for their crops, inform pregnant women about upcoming medical appointments, and improve the performance of students in classrooms. While there was plenty of excitement about these kinds of activities, the group also acknowledged challenges to fully realizing this potential.

As we increase our focus on gathering and evaluating data, there are three main challenges nonprofits need to overcome:

  1. Quantity vs. quality. A successful pipeline for nonprofits focuses on collecting great data, performing analytics to transform the numbers into knowledge, and then using the knowledge to improve programs. Most organizations are currently focused on improving their data collection methods, but very little effort is spent on their analysis. We need to look at the whole data pipeline to ensure we create the best combination of quantity and quality for nonprofits.

  • Imperfect tools. Data analysis tools were originally built for Fortune 500 companies, then handed down to nonprofits under the guise of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). But when it comes to data needs and usage, nonprofits are very different from businesses: The average nonprofit user is far less technologically savvy than the average business data analyst. (While a data analyst working in banking knows "pivot tables," most people don't know what they are, let alone how to use them for analysis.) We need tools that are easier to use and tailored to gathering data relevant for 501c3 organizations.
  • Funding priorities. Nonprofits are mindful of pleasing our donors and grantmakers so that we can secure funding for programs and operations. Some foundations have now prioritized monitoring and evaluation practices to track their grantees' work, but most do not employ a rigorous evaluation practice or understand the value of helping nonprofits ramp up their data tools. Funders can play a strong role in encouraging their grantees to become more data-driven, such as by tying future grant approval to rigorous monitoring and evaluation of implementation of existing grants.
  • As Jolkona, our partners and other nonprofits become more data-driven, I am interested in exploring these topics at this week's NTEN Nonprofit Tech Conference and beyond. What are some problems you have experienced related to gathering data about your donors, clients and programs? How can we improve, as a sector, to engage more funders and help more people? I look forward to hearing and reading your thoughts.

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