Become a Data Informed Nonprofit

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You’ve probably heard this one: “Nonprofits need to be data-driven to survive in today’s funding climate.” I'm here to help you understand what that means and why it matters.

Take An Evidence Based Approach 

To understand what it means to be "data informed" we need to look at the broader trend of “evidence-based” approaches and metrics-based evaluation in the nonprofit world. This trend isn’t new, it’s part of a cultural belief that corporate institutions have determined the most efficient and effective way of doing things, and that emulating the private sector can provide a path forward for governments and public institutions. In the nonprofit world that means demonstrating impact through quantifiable measures.

Our funders demand that we collect data and report back on the work we are doing.

Attempting to find ways to measure our impact is, without question, a good thing. But what is easy in the for-profit world (measuring money) isn’t so clear in the public sector.

It’s not always possible to define impact through cut-and-dry numbers. And this has led to a gap in many nonprofits with:

  • Metrics that reflect the well-intentioned but often inaccurate understanding of our funders rather than what our staff or constituents know actually works
  • Staff who believe that technology is only there to make our lives harder
  • Technology designed for funders and management efficiency rather than social change
Tap Into the Power of Technology 
It’s hard to deny the inherent power of technology to multiply effort and unlock new approaches. Just as technology has changed the private sector it can be a tool (though not the solution) for creating systems-level change in our communities. Using this power for true change requires that it be integrated deeply and carefully into the work of our organizations. The lessons learned from the private sector need to be balanced by the realities of our work and our communities.

Achieving this careful implementation can only be accomplished when the motivation comes from within. Our funders (and often management) don’t really understand what things are like on the ground. For technology to truly serve our communities we need it driven by our constituents and our direct service staff who really understand what is needed.

To do this, Tech Impact approaches change as cultural rather than technological. We seek to help nonprofits see technology as an enabler rather than a hindrance. And we often use data as a starting point. To get staff excited about technology, we show them how data can help their constituents directly. We help nonprofits build data systems that:

  • Create feedback loops to show direct service staff how changes to their approach creates changes in outcomes so they understand why they are collecting data
  • Integrate data systems into existing management structures so that reviewing data becomes a normal part of day-to-day nonprofit life
  • Focus on reducing the time staff spend on collecting and processing data so they perceive technology as a help rather than a hinderance
  • Make data accessible to staff so it can be evaluated within the context of their personal understanding of the systems they seek to change

Some call this approach data-driven, we call it data-informed. Data-informed means tempering raw numbers with our understanding of the complexities of reality. It means making decisions not just on the numbers but on the unique experience of our staff. It means understanding that creating social change is more difficult than making money.

Identify Where to Start 

Reaching the goal of data-informed culture isn’t easy, but Tech Impact has learned a thing or two about what works, and what doesn’t.

  • Do focus on small wins like dashboards based on existing spreadsheets and small workflow automation successes. Don’t feel like you need to fix everything or invest in entirely new data systems all at once.
  • Do involve your staff at every step. Build immediate value for them. Focus on what they are excited about, abandon what they don’t use. Don’t try to get them on-board through long bureaucratic process.
  • Do make data and tools available to staff at every level of your organization. Don’t treat data as a precious resource visible to only a few.
Get Help

If you need more help Tech Impact Data and Strategy services can help. Let us help you build dashboards (regardless of where your data lives now). We can help you pick new databases or make better use of your existing systems. We even offer Virtual CIO services to help your organization shift it’s culture over time.

Ready for help? Fill out the Get Started form at the top right of this page.

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