Nonprofit use of data mixed

Nonprofits are tracking data on their operations and programs but face hurdles in gathering and building data into their business, a new survey says.

“Too often, barriers keep nonprofits from collecting and integrating important data into their daily work,” says the 2012 State of Nonprofit Data Report from NTEN and Idealware.

Ninety-nine percent of 398 people from nonprofits in 17 states responding to the survey in April 2012 are tracking some sort of metrics.

But many nonprofits also face significant barriers, including collecting and working with data, lack of expertise, issues of time and prioritization, and challenges with technology, the survey says.

Eighty-nine percent of nonprofits are tracking financial data and find it useful for making decisions, while 50 percent are tracking data about outcomes for clients and constituents, 41 percent are tracking external data about their issue area, 39 percent are using data to make budgeting decisions, and 26 percent are using donor data to make program decisions.

Based on six one-hour telephone focus groups with 38 people from nonprofits, consulting firms that work with nonprofits, and foundations, the survey also included recommendations on how nonprofits can become more data-driven.

Nonprofits, for example, should “start small” in using data, it says, picking a “discrete project with a beginning and end,” it says.

“Try defining one thing you’d like to improve or change, define one metric to measure it that would be useful and not too difficult to track, collect that data over time, and then use the data to help understand whether you’re making change in the organization,” a consultant told the survey. “If staff see that this data is useful, it can start the ball rolling on collecting more metrics to support a data-focused culture.”

Nonprofits also should connect their goals to their metrics, developing “quantifiable goals related to what you’re trying to do and determine the best way to measure whether or not you are meeting them,” the survey says.

They also should not begin by “obsessing about outcomes,” it says, because outcomes can be “some of the most difficult” data to track.

Instead, nonprofits should begin their data strategy with other metrics “that are easier to pin down, like financial, fundraising or program status,” it says.

And funders should “think critically about what you can expect nonprofits to be able to produce,” the survey says. “It’s reasonable to ask them to measure their own activities, but measuring their impact on a community might well be a research project that would run into the hundreds of thousands [of dollars] even for a trained evaluation firm.”

The survey also recommended that nonprofits learn from one another about using data, change their organizational culture to value data, beginning with board members, and train their staff to know how to use the organization’s database, understand what data the organization is collecting, and see that “data-based decision-making can help them do their jobs.”

Nonprofits also should evaluate the existing ability of staff for data collection and evaluation, and decide if training “can increase their comfort with data.”

Todd Cohen

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