Does Your Nonprofit Organization Use the Data it Collects?

Does Your Nonprofit Organization Use the Data it Collects?

Many nonprofits are probably collecting too much data and using too little simultaneously.

Amanda Luzzader
Amanda Luzzader
Content Writer
Does Your Nonprofit Organization Use the Data it Collects?

It would be difficult to argue against the idea that nonprofit organizations should collect data about their programs, donors, volunteers, and employees. It's not really up for debate. How else can a nonprofit fulfill a mission, improve fundraising, and track progress?

So, do all nonprofits collect data? And if they do, how are they using it?

A recent survey by the software company Hubspot found that 90 percent of nonprofit organizations surveyed were collecting data for decision-making purposes. Not bad! However, only 40 percent of the nonprofits surveyed claimed that they "use data very often to make decisions or in every decision they make." Not so good. Furthermore, "46 percent said they do not consistently use data to make decisions." Only 5 percent of the organizations surveyed said they used data in all the decisions they made. Perhaps most surprisingly, 13 percent of the organizations surveyed said they did not use data for decision-making at all.

How would your nonprofit fit into this survey? Interestingly, the question is not whether your nonprofit should collect data (it should and probably does). The more important question is whether your nonprofit is using the data it collects.

Unsurprisingly, effective data gathering begins before a single survey is written or any questions are answered. The matter of what data to collect, obviously, must be settled prior to any data-collecting efforts. Many nonprofit organizations fail at data collection because they're collecting too much of it. Others are not collecting the right kind of data--in other words, not collecting enough data. Many nonprofits are probably collecting too much data and too little simultaneously.

According to TechSoup, a group of non-governmental agencies that assists nonprofits with technology, other reasons for ineffective use of data among nonprofits include, "lack of time, shifting internal priorities, insufficient staff capacity, or lack of in-house expertise to manage all the data and process it."

TechSoup goes on to advise that effective data collection for existing nonprofits should begin with a data audit, which includes the following steps:

1. Reflect on all the data your organization is collecting. This includes quantitative data (like demographic information about donors and clients) and qualitative data (such as case studies and free-form feedback). It can also include things like correspondence and e-mail messages.

2. List all of the data your organization is currently using to make decisions and improve the organization. List the other purposes each set of data is being used for.

3. Determine what data your organization should continue to gather and what new data is needed to make organizational decisions, meet objectives, and improve the organization. Stop collecting data that is not needed.

Social Solutions, a nonprofit organization that assists compassionate-service nonprofits adopt technological solutions that will make them more efficient, suggests that data is the tool that empowers nonprofits to fulfill their missions. Further, Social Solutions claims that there are (at a minimum) three kinds of data nonprofits need: (1) outputs, (2) outcomes, and (3) impacts.

Outputs are very simple points of data that report what happened during a program, class, or volunteer effort. For example, the number of attendees in a teen substance-abuse class or the number of donations collected at a banquet are basic outputs. This kind of data is probably the most common kind of data collected.

Outcomes are the result of outputs. For example, if twenty-five adolescents attended the class on substance abuse, an outcome might be that eight of the students were prompted to enter a substance-abuse counseling program.

Impacts are lasting changes that result from outputs and outcomes. For instance, a reduction in the number of state-wide adolescents with substance-abuse programs might be the impact a nonprofit is tracking.

Social Solutions says that by collecting and tracking these kinds of data, your organization can attract more funding, prove the effectiveness of your operations, and track the "journeys" of those you serve. Outputs, outcomes, and impacts can also help your organization understand your setbacks and weaknesses.