Shhhh… We’re about to let you in on a little secret… That scary word “data…” All it really means is “information.” For leaders of nonprofit organizations, “data” can be a four-letter word – both literally and figuratively. But it doesn’t have to be that way (at least the figurative part). We put forth the argument that data is central to everything a nonprofit organization does. So rather than run away from it, we want to encourage nonprofit leaders to embrace it.
Why is data so scary? People don’t tend to launch nonprofit organizations because they love collecting and analyzing data; they do it because they want to have some positive impact on society. As a nonprofit leader, you can know that you are achieving a positive impact without measuring it. You can see the impact in the smile of a child who is developing self-esteem or in the sight of a public park you recently rehabbed or in the letter of thanks from a mother you helped rescue from domestic violence. The last thing you want is to attempt to quantify all of that – to assign it a number – and compare it to the good work performed by other organizations or to the past performance of your own.
We have good news and bad news for you The good news is that you don’t have to quantify it. The bad news is that that’s not an excuse to avoid data. Data, after all, can take many shapes. It can be quantitative or qualitative. It can be objective or subjective. It can be statistically valid or anecdotal. It can perfectly measure a given metric or serve as a rough proxy. In other words, collect data – the more, the better. Don’t worry if there is noise in the data that affects its conclusions. Don’t throw out data that doesn’t match your desired outcome. Use data to tell the story of your organization for better or for worse. Provide caveats where necessary. Explain the shortcomings of your data and develop a plan to overcome them.
Learn to use data effectively Our Founder and Executive Director, Adam Lenter, is teaching a two-session course this spring for Hofstra University’s Not-for-Profit Management Program. The course is called “Big Data/Small Data: How Not-for-Profits Can Use Data to Thrive and Grow.” Through the course, nonprofit leaders will learn how to use data from each of three critical areas within their organization (Impact, Fundraising, and Program) to drive and inform the other two.