Bringing the power of data to nonprofit organizations

August 4th, 2009 by Grace Meng

Over the last six months, I’ve had the privilege to interview a dozen people working with various nonprofit organizations, as well as a few agencies, about how they work with data.  They’ve candidly shared with me the data they collect (or try to collect) and the challenges they face in getting as much out of data as possible.  I’ve talked to people who work locally, nationally, and internationally; with people who do everything from workforce development to HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa.

Businesses have always known that data is valuable.  They’ve also had the money and resources to use the latest tools to collect and analyze data.  Walmart was at the forefront of using computers to track its inventory; Google and other internet companies are now at the forefront of using cookies to gather more than we ever believed was possible.

Nonprofits have been a little slower to recognize that data is not just for people who are trying to make a profit.  But as nonprofits compete for funding and donors seek more accountability for what nonprofits do with their money, it’s become almost trendy for nonprofits to try to think more like businesses about their data.  Whether they’re national advocacy organizations or more localized neighborhood groups providing basic services, nonprofits are starting to realize that data might be valuable for their missions, too.

In the course of interviewing these nonprofits, though, it’s become increasingly obvious to me that nonprofits might have a chance to one-up business in changing the way data gets collected, analyzed, and used.

The reason we at CDP are interested in learning more about the ways nonprofits use data now is because we think they could be major users and contributors to the “datatrust,” a safe and secure place to share, and not just hoard, sensitive information.

This would be probably come as a surprise to many of the people I talked to.  The few that were very proud of their data collection felt as proprietary towards their data as Google or Microsoft would. And the ones that aren’t so proud are struggling with yellowing paper files or inflexible Excel spreadsheets.  The thought of being at the forefront of anything would be mind-boggling.

But the one thing they all had in common was that they wanted more data.  Almost everyone could think of some data source that wasn’t available to them, whether from government agencies or administrative courts. In many cases, the reason for withholding that data was to protect the privacy of individuals in that data set.  Many of them could also think of things they wanted to count but were having trouble counting now, from the best ways to improve outcomes to better understanding their target populations.

We at CDP believe that the best way to get data is to give data (see our experimental online data collection forum!)  And many nonprofit organizations are in a great position to get data by giving data.

First, nonprofits have limited resources.  One organization, unless it’s incredibly wealthy, can only collect so much information.  A safe, secure place for allies to share information, i.e., crowd-source, could help nonprofits get answers to long-standing questions.

Is that immigration judge really denying 99% of all asylum cases before him?  How long is it taking the New York State Department of Labor to process wage claims?  Given that much of this information isn’t available anyway, any information would be better than no information.

And more information could give nonprofits increased leverage to demand more information from government agencies.  Some nonprofits already have strong networks of members or allies.  A better way to collect data is all they need to maximize resources they already have.

Second, nonprofits have fundamentally different goals than businesses.  Their mission, whether it’s to save the whales or to provide job training to former inmates, is about the public good.  Given that they are run with donations from the public, many nonprofits have taken this to heart and decided that they need to be more transparent.  Even though transparency often seems to be limited to disclosure of annual IRS filings, a datatrust could bring transparency to a new level.  A nonprofit could choose not only to declare their job training program a success in its annual report, it could also choose to disclose the data through the datatrust for others to analyze.  Transparency could push nonprofits to be better at what they do, which would benefit all of us.

Certainly, a CDP datatrust won’t solve all nonprofit data problems.  We’re not trying to get into the business of nonprofit data management.  But there are amazing opportunities to harness the power of online data collection to make the world a better place, and not just target advertising more accurately.

We’re still thinking it through.  We’re continuing our interviews and learning with each one more about the particular goals and challenges nonprofits face in using data.  And the more we learn, the more exciting it is to think about what could happen when the power of data is available for all of us, and not just major corporations.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.


Get Adobe Flash player