There’s more to running a successful nonprofit than fundraising and helping people. Those things are important, but a nonprofit is like any other business. The more facts you have on hand, the greater the chance of making sound decisions that can move your organization forward. Collecting, tracking, and interpreting data may not come naturally to your nonprofit, but it’s important to learn the nuts and bolts of the practice. And here’s why you want to do it — understanding the data can give you a clear picture of where you are now and what to do to best remain strong and relevant in the future.
Why Your Nonprofit Should Collect Data
You might associate data collection and tracking with giant corporations. Everyone knows that data drives everything private-sector, for-profit corporations do. But doesn’t your nonprofit have similar needs? You can actually use data to make precise decisions like where best to share your nonprofit’s message on social media and how to reach the most generous donors.
Collecting, tracking, and interpreting data requires a lot of work, so you might be wondering how to pull it off with limited time and minimal staff. Once you internalize the benefits data can have on your nonprofit, you may wish to bring a dedicated person or a team on board, budget permitting, to work on the various data-related tasks on a full-time basis.
In the Beginning: Types of Data and Where to Find It
The really good news is that much of the data you need may already be a click away. Your social media accounts and website keep running data about every person who interacts with them. All you need to do is access it through the tools provided by the social media or web hosting company. Your email list can be an excellent source of data when organized in certain types of software. The information you collect at events, even if it’s on scraps of paper, can also be also organized, analyzed, and used to make decisions on how to best run your nonprofit.
When you’re just starting out from scratch, your volunteers are a good place to start. Consider collecting data about who they are and why they volunteer. You could collect details, such as their ages, educational backgrounds, and volunteer history with other nonprofits. This data can help you get a better understanding of who best to reach out to when recruiting new volunteers.
You probably have a treasure trove of data on your donors, but you’re just not using it. Instead of depositing their donations in the bank and sending thank you notes, you might choose software that allows you to pull together data that shows vital facts about your donors. The person or team you hire for the task can use donor management software to organize the data in ways that help your nonprofit get the most out of it.
Data Maturity: What It Looks Like
Getting into the habit of collecting the right kinds of data takes time, and you shouldn’t expect your efforts to be an overnight success. Overtime though, you can expect to get really good at collecting and tracking data that drives your nonprofit’s operations. Like a time-lapse photo, your nonprofit may experience slow changes you might not even be able to see at first. The baby steps you take first through becoming a master of using data are known as data maturity. So you know what your evolution might look like, here are the stages on the road to data maturity:
- At first, you’re still finding your feet. You and your team may collect some data, but it probably won’t be organized.
- Your team gets used to collecting, organizing, and interpreting data. At this phase, they’re producing simple reports for you on a regular basis. For example, from data collection, you may find out things such as how much money you raise on a weekly basis. From tracking efforts, you may find out which donors in which income brackets donate the most money over the same and extended time periods.
- Knowing what your community wants from you becomes increasingly important once you get savvy at data collection and tracking. At this stage, conducting surveys can get you the data needed to best serve your community.
- You’ve taken surveys, and you’ve seen data patterns develop. At this stage, you’re ready to look at your programs and enact changes to make them more effective.
- Here, you’re looking at the data to see if your programs are making a difference. You can also adjust your programs’ desired outcomes based on what the data shows. For example, if your nonprofit feeds the homeless and serves 100 meals a day one year, you can use data to understand donation increases needed to serve 120 meals per day the next year and get those donations.
- This is the stage at which you’ve got the savvy to use data to make a wide range of big decisions across your organization.
Taking your nonprofit to the next level using data isn’t easy, so remember that starting slow is okay. Consistency is a close friend of data maturity, and the more often you engage in collecting, tracking, interpreting data, the sooner your nonprofit can enjoy the fruits of your efforts.