The Data Revolution



If you can’t explicitly quantify the impact your non-profit has, then you are about to lose your grants, your donors and your supporters.


Nice stories and pretty pictures have secured your financial lifelines for decades, but the landscape is changing and you need to keep up. Not only will you lose funding, but a lack of data analysis understanding within your organisation could mean that you’re missing opportunities to help more people.


In the last ten years, there has been an explosion in the amount of data available from both online and offline sources. Facebook generates over three billion data points from comments and likes each day. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an astronomy project, generates a thousand times more data in 24 hours than is catalogued in the entire U.S. Library of Congress. While data analysis is well embedded in the commercial sector, individuals and organisations are now starting to use data sets to examine the causes and solutions to complicated development issues. For example, one research group is applying data analysis techniques to try to predict when famine will hit Uganda by examining 130,000 pieces of data.


There is a limited pool of grants and donations available and funders will soon begin to prioritise organisations that can prove that the work they do is grounded in solid research, and that the results they achieve can be clearly documented. Non-profits need to start making internal changes now so that they are poised to take advantage of this change.


This sea change in how funders operate has already begun. In the USA, the Knight Foundation, a major foundation, has created DataKind, an organisation formed specifically to promote and facilitate social change through the use of data analysis. So far they have worked with organisations including the World Bank, and the NYC Parks Department, and on projects as diverse as mapping poverty to ensuring microfinance investment performs effectively. Organisations like the Knight Foundation are preaching loudly about the benefits of a data driven approach to social change and other funders are starting to pay attention.


Within your own organisation there are likely opportunities to improve your service by examining the data you already have. In order to do this, your organisation needs to have a consistent and relentless data focus. How you do this will depend heavily on what sector you work in, but may require less investment than you think. For process-based organisations the cost of data collection and storage equipment has dropped significantly over the last few years. For those with a more social focus, you may need to look at indirect methods of collecting data. In either case, it is well worth looking at what has been achieved in the commercial sector for inspiration. Alternatively, you could use publicly available data to create new opportunities.


Both the Australian and New Zealand Governments offer portals for open access to government data. This data ranges from the location of playgrounds to average electricity use, and many more obscure topics. In the USA, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission used open government data to prove that Zanesville, Ohio had denied access to city water on the basis of race. You may have excellent internal data that when ‘mashed-up’ with external data can provide some startling revelations. On top of these excellent resources, there are many public sites that offer data or that can provide it via extraction processes. For example, the UK Charity Register wasn’t available in its raw form, so one organisation ‘scraped’, or copied, the data from the website and reassembled it as a database. That data can now be analysed rather than just read.


Data analysis doesn’t just allow us to examine past actions. For example, a charity working in health could look at a decade of data on illness and overlay it on a map with other factors such as household income, in order to find correlations and make future predictions about areas of a city that need preventative intervention. This kind of data analysis is rarely done in the non-profit sector, but will become more common as the tools and techniques become more widespread.


Using data to improve what we do is vitally important. Equally important is using data in order to describe what we do. As non-profits, our fundraising departments are often highly skilled at data analysis. They can tell us who the biggest donors are, but we rarely talk so articulately about the quantifiable impact of the work we do. We can tell our funders that we’ve planted 10,000 trees, or fed 3,000 kids, but we struggle to explain the follow-on effects of these actions.


In order to better quantify the results of what we do, we may have to work with outside data sources, such as government with their greater resources, to conduct the research. However you source the data, you will need to be able to clearly, and statistically, show the benefit of your work, or you will be outdone by the other non-profit organisations that can.



Chris O’Neill recently spoke at the 2014 Better Boards Conference. This article first appeared in the 2014 Better Boards Conference Magazine.

Avatar About Chris O'Neill

Chris is the General Manager of BATS Theatre and a Board Member of Arts Wellington. He has spoken to diverse groups on strategic and operational issues in both Australia and New Zealand. Chris is particularly passionate about non-­profit governance and helping non-­profits to improve what they do and how they do it. Chris is also currently undertaking his MBA at Victoria University.

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