Sean Chisholm

How to Create a More Data-Driven Nonprofit

For startups and nonprofits alike, being data-driven is a lot harder than it seems. You can have plenty of analytical people capturing lots of “good” data and still have a hard time creating and sustaining an organizational culture that consistently makes decisions based on the numbers.

Collecting data is an obvious prerequisite for being data-driven, but it’s not sufficient in and of itself. There are other barriers that often stand in the way of empowering a team to thrive on data. The observations shared below are based off of some of the lessons we’ve learned in dealing with these barriers. Hopefully they will help you develop some ideas for how your own organization might more effectively leverage its data and, ultimately, become a data-driven nonprofit.

1. Collect Data in a Format That’s Easy to Digest

If there’s one thing that nonprofits and startups have in common, it’s the need to accomplish a lot with just a little. Being able to wear multiple hats is great, but when you’re constantly moving from one thing to the next, some of the details inevitably get lost in the shuffle. One of those details tends to be the data.

When you’re really busy, running an array of clumsy reports or trudging through spreadsheets is an easy thing to push down your list. You think, “I don’t have time to dig into this today,” and before long you’re off to the next task. Pretty soon another must-do item pops up and your plan to grind through the data has gotten pushed to the right once again.

The reality is when your data is difficult to use it’s also easy to ignore. [Tweet this!] Everything starts with the ability to capture reliable data, but it’s just as important to put it into a format that people can digest quickly. Knowing that people will always be busy forces you to think about preparing data that is accurate and user-friendly.

2. Make Data Analysis a Priority

Just as it’s hard to get people to look at the data, it’s just as difficult to get them to use it. It’s not hard to understand intellectually that there’s a lot of value in using data to shape decisions; it is hard, however, to consistently do this in practice.

Everyone knows that going to the gym and exercising several times a week is good for your health, but knowing this doesn’t automatically inspire people to leap off the couch and commit to a workout regimen. That takes some effort. So does data adoption.

Here, again, is where having user-friendly data (using visuals for instance) will help people actually digest what they see. Creating behavioral triggers, like auto-emails or push notifications, will help you take things further by encouraging people to get in the habit of checking the numbers.

Just like going to the gym gets easier after you get over the initial inertia, using data gets easier as it simply becomes part of your daily routine. Focusing on ways to have the data repeatedly pop up in front of the people who should be using it is an important component of cultivating a data-driven team.

3. Identify Who’s Driving the Bus

You can tell your team that you need to be better at using your data to make informed decisions, and you’ll probably get a room full of approving nods. But as soon as the meeting concludes and people shuffle back to their desks, everyone goes right back to what they were doing before.

To inspire action, you need to free up one or two people who can own data adoption. This can be difficult in a startup or other resource-constrained environment, especially given that everyone already wears multiple hats, but failing to assign ownership to data enablement projects is a recipe for stagnation. It may not be possible to have a full-time person working on data projects, but you can do better than simply stating the obvious, that you “should be better at using the data.” Start to move the ball down the field bit by bit by assigning specific tasks with defined deadlines to various team members.

Even if your progress isn’t as fast as you’d like it to be, when you assign specific data-related tasks, and free people up to work on them, your progress will at least be real. That’s a lot better than simply claiming data is important without really getting anywhere.

4. Start Simple and Be Realistic

Life is complicated. Data is too.

It’s easy to get mired down in complexity when you think about how to gather the right data for your organization and how to present that information in a meaningful way. There’s a lot of noise to contend with and it can be overwhelming trying to wrap your head around everything all at once. You’ll end up spinning your mental wheels to exhaustion if you bite off too much too soon.

Improving your organization’s use of data is a process, and acknowledging that can help you avoid becoming overwhelmed or stuck. When you realize that things are not going to be ideal from the get go, you can focus on what makes sense as a starting point. If you take a first-things-first mentality, and gradually improve things as you go, you’ll be able to identify priorities along the way.

When it comes to creating a culture that is truly data-driven, slow and steady wins the race. Progress might be frustratingly slow at times, just keep in mind that persistence and perspective pays off in the end.

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Image Credit: Craig Moulding

  • Surendran Balachandran

    Can’t emphasize the first point enough – capturing reliable data is the crucial first step in data-driven decision making. In the last 2 years we have helped our partners collect over 20 million data points using our platform. In the process, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to collect high quality data to drive decision making. We wanted to share our experiences and the lessons we have learned with the community. We compiled our learnings into a 30 page free ebook – “The Ultimate Guide to Effective Data Collection” (

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