Nonprofits: Here's how to get data to show results - Generocity Philly

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May 10, 2016 3:01 pm

Nonprofits: Here’s how to get data to show results

“I think we're at the point in the nonprofit sector where data collection and management is a requirement,” said Sara Thompson of nonprofit Tech Impact during a #PTW16 event.

Data Management for Nonprofits, a part of #PTW16.

(Photo by Cindy Falteich)

In a world where data is king, 46 percent of nonprofits don’t have widespread policies for data management.

This is the result of a survey completed by Tech Impact, a nonprofit with a mission of empowering communities and nonprofits to use technology to better serve our world. Sara Thompson, the marketing and community manager for Tech Impact, presented “Data Management for Nonprofits” at a Philly Tech Week event organized by the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce.

A Silicon Valley veteran, Thompson pushed for the idea that nonprofits should embrace that often-enigmatic and overwhelming concept called “data.”

“I think we’re at the point in the nonprofit sector where data collection and management is a requirement,” she said. “Donors are looking for outcome reports from nonprofits’ programs and services. We need data to engage donors and volunteers in order to get an edge in fundraising.”

There is no more imminent threat of failure to a nonprofit than the lack of funding. The problem is, in a sector that’s heavy with civic-minded optimism and short on tech wizards, making the case in support of data management has to be compelling. 

“Nonprofits are being asked to report on outcomes,” Thompson said — not just reporting on how many kids were fed, for example, but to track outcomes of a specific group of kids for a predetermined number of years to predict how many dollars will be needed. Data can also help make informed decisions to improve and adjust programs and services.

"Collect data that will help you learn about your programs."
Sara Thompson

What should be the first focus for a nonprofit considering data collection and management?

“Consider the programs and services of your nonprofit, specifically your mission – what are you doing and what do you need to know,” Thompson said. “Collect data that will help you learn about your programs.”

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When looking for a data management solution, aim for a five-year roadmap. Contemplate what changes will take place in your organization, which platforms will grow with you and what your donors will look like in five years.

Another consideration before launching into a data management solution is funding priorities. Tech Impact promotes cloud-based solutions because they are often the most cost-effective and sustainable solutions for nonprofits. What’s significant about this from a financial viewpoint is that a cloud-based solution will be considered an operational cost, much like an electric bill. This is different from a capital expense (i.e. servers and/or software), something for which nonprofits typically raise funds. Usually administrators wouldn’t go to the board to fundraise for operational expenses, but now it’s necessary.

Here some other things to do before scaling to cloud-based data solutions:

  • Find out how the product is supported.
  • Investigate the ongoing costs of add-ons and extensions.
  • Determine if your technology administration will be handled in-house or outsourced.
  • Map out which internal systems need to share data and how.
  • Incorporate the input of your staff in the decision-making process.
  • Consider all platforms and identify new ones by completing market research, talking to similar organizations, asking for references, posing technical questions and weighing prepackaged vs. custom solutions.
  • Google it.

Thompson said there are a bunch of platforms available that will meet the needs of most organizations. Everything from CRM, email marketing, event planning, volunteer management, donor management and social media to accounting and productivity are available. Popular platforms include but are not limited to SalesForce, HubSpot, MailChimp, Quickbooks, Eventbrite, Kindful and Office 365. Keep in mind that customized solutions can be pricy.

Once you have your platforms selected, Thompson said, keep in mind one caution: Allocate enough time for setup before you need to use it. It might seem intuitive to fill in the blanks but it’s good to consult with people who understand how to translate organizational needs into the technology.

So what do you do with all that clean, organized data?

Get a data visualization tool. Even though there are a number of business intelligence software platforms that help people visualize and understand data with colorful, dramatic charts and graphs, the platform recommended and supported by Tech Impact is Tableau, Thompson said. Not only is it discounted for nonprofits, it has great functionality.

A strategic and targeted effort will have the greatest impact on reporting and subsequent fundraising. The key is to have clean data and a person in your organization who can look at the report and know if it’s clear or useless.

Finally, when considering technology solutions, Thompson said this is what she’s witnessed as the basic error most nonprofits make regarding data: “Not using it to tell their story and demonstrate their impact.”

In other words, what’s the point of having it if you don’t show it off?

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