5 Critical Characteristics of Data Driven Nonprofits | npENGAGE

5 Critical Characteristics of Data Driven Nonprofits

By on Sep 6, 2016


A man looking through data for nonprofits

We know that Big Data is fundamentally changing how companies make decisions and improve their performance, but many nonprofit organizations have lagged behind in this area.

Over a year ago, I set out on a journey to understand why nonprofits are not making more out of the hidden treasure in their data. What I found is compiled in the new book Data Driven Nonprofits.

Nonprofit organizations are vital to making meaningful change in the world and they have significant amounts of untapped potential in their data. But why do some nonprofits struggle to use data while others have successfully harnessed information to drive better decision making?

To answer this question, I spent time researching the habits, mindsets, and cultures of successful data driven nonprofits. Along the way, I interviewed more than 20 nonprofit experts from a wide variety of organizations.

I found successful data driven organizations across nearly every sub-sector including higher education, international relief, religious, medical research, healthcare, human services, mental health and crisis intervention, community improvement and capacity building, environmental, and animal welfare.

5 Critical Characteristics of Data Driven Nonprofits

Over time there emerged five critical characteristics that each of these successful nonprofits had in common:

1. Natural Curiosity: Time and time again, the best examples of people using data to drive decisions are those who have curious minds. They may not all have a background in statistics or mathematics or computer science, but all of them were curious people. They want to understand why things happen and how the world works. Natural curiosity is a prerequisite for changing the status quo and data driven nonprofits empower their people to explore what’s possible.

2. Data Health: The term “data hygiene” rarely gets anyone excited, but the importance of data health at a nonprofit cannot be overstated. This is not about garbage in and garbage out. It’s actually much worse than that. If you start out with bad data, then it only gets worse from there, never better. Data driven nonprofits have healthy data habits.

3. Champions at All Levels: We often hear about the importance of top-down leadership to make change happen. While the support of leadership is important it simply is not enough. The most successful data driven nonprofits have champions at all levels of the organization working to drive change. They may not have the fancy title or the corner office, but they make things happen each and every day.

DD-huff4. Data is Not a Foreign Object: These were the words of Christoph Gorder, chief water officer at charity: water. It encapsulates the mindset of highly data driven organizations. Data is part of the daily workflow and forms the basis for how decisions are made. Data driven nonprofits embrace the use of information to accelerate change.

5. Data Scientists are Good Storytellers: It is a mistake to believe that the data should speak for itself. A common thread among the best data scientists in the nonprofit sector is that they have learned how to be good storytellers. They are able to distill all information and influence decisions through telling stories about the hidden surprises in the data.

These nonprofits are accelerating change in the world by using data to influence strategy and inform decisions that produce value and impact. All of these organizations have invested in people, process, data, and technology. But that is simply not enough.

It turns out that the secrets to success are being curious, having champions at all levels of the organization, making data part of the daily workflow, and being good storytellers.

Some organizations still treat data as exhaust. The wasted overflow from systems that provides no value. Successful organizations focus on turning that data into information and insights that drive better decision making. In the coming years, these characteristics will be essential to the success of nonprofit organizations around the world.

This post was originally featured on Huffington Post


Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and bestselling author of Data Driven Nonprofits.

MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in many mainstream publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, The NonProfit Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bloomberg, and has appeared on NPR.

He is a frequent speaker at events including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), American Marketing Association (AMA), Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA), Giving Institute Summer Symposium, National Association of Independent School (NAIS), Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), Institute of Fundraising National Convention (United Kingdom), Civil Society Conference (Netherlands), International Fundraising Congress (Netherlands), Ask Direct Fundraising Summer School (Ireland), and a keynote speaker at several conferences across the social good sector.

Steve previously served on the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Board of Directors and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University.

He is a frequent blogger, published author of a chapter in the book People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities, and is a co-editor of the book Internet Management for Nonprofits: Strategies, Tools & Trade Secrets. His latest book, Data Driven Nonprofits, became a bestseller in 2016.

Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.

Comments (12)

  • Elvira says:

    very encouraging thoughts shared. Dealing with data in daily routine work, totally agree that data cannot and should not be neglected as this is what in case well analyzed can influence decisions on all stakeholder levels

  • Tsitsi Grace Bunhu says:

    This already gets me excited about the whole data collection,management,keeping and processing issue. Gets me thinking how critical decisions have been made without having enough information simply because the data was unavailable.

  • Prasanna Ramchander says:

    Very practical and realistic teaching, data is very essential for all the projects to take decisions, decisions taken without the data. could be bias, hence data cannot be neglected. Thank you very much for this teaching.

    • Happiness says:

      So apt. A whole lot of NGOs cook up preconceived stories rather than go through the right channel of collating data properly. No wonder results are not being yielded.

      • Amusa Annette says:

        I certainly have learned and can now understand why my organization doesn’t play with data collection. I think collecting data is not only relevant for big companies and NGOs but it should be more relevant for new and small businesses.

      • Momodou Suwa says:

        Yeah! I am amazed at how helpful data can be to decision making. It we want to get rid of the bandwagon effect (our cognitive biases), data is the best tool. As such, data should be available to all staff in an organization.

  • Christa says:

    This is true. Sadly, nearly everyone in my organisation does not seem to make data driven decision.

  • Mercy Innocent says:

    truly we have to change our narratives as data users and begin viewing data as an important day to day activities

  • Kanyankole Rukundo. says:

    This article is very interesting. I really liked reading through the five critical characteristic, but #5 inspired me more especially in relation being aware that data should not speak for itself. I want to continue to learn more about distilling data, use data to make decisions and telling data-related stories to others.

  • Atusaye mwalwanda says:

    Realistic teaching, really true if you start with a bad data, it only get worse from there. Most NGOs do not use data to make decisions and there is need for culture data driven decision making.

  • Rosalinda Miguel says:

    These are all great points. My org has started taking more steps forward to collecting relevant data, analyzing it, and using it to drive our mission forward. We’ve made progress towards hitting all of your points.

  • Firmin DOSSOU says:

    These are all great points. My org has started taking more steps forward to collecting relevant data, analyzing it, and using it to drive our mission forward. We’ve made progress towards hitting all of your points.

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