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Three Keys for the Data-Driven Nonprofit in 2020

Kurt Voelker

Vice President, Business Strategy and Growth, Forum One

As your nonprofit organization sets its strategic priorities and operational plans for this new decade, what are some ways you can continue to drive your data maturity? Here are three trends that every nonprofit leader should have on their 2020 roadmap.

It’s no secret that over the past decade “data-driven decision making” has captured the attention of nonprofit business leaders.

Google search interest* for “data-driven” since 2010

Data driven
Data source: Google Trends
* Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means there was not enough data for this term.

And it is no surprise why. Accountability, transparency, and demonstrable results are now table stakes for validating your organization’s theory of change, driving growth and funding, and proving the need to scale your work. Data is at the heart of understanding what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, to increase your impact, you need to arm your teams with insight and intelligence that can continually improve how you work and what you offer.

So as your nonprofit organization sets its strategic priorities and operational plans for this new decade, what are some ways you can continue to drive your data maturity? Here are three trends I think every nonprofit leader should have on their 2020 roadmap.

Trend #1: the rise of the Chief Data Scientist and central data & analytics teams

Data continues to become a critical component for strategic decision making across departments, but few organizations have the technical expertise to surface valuable insights from their data, in order to assess and take action. Who is responsible for helping to make this happen within your organization? We are seeing more and more enterprise nonprofits increasingly invest in central teams, often led by C-level leaders, such as Chief Data Scientist or Chief Data Officer. For example, the Urban Institute has a Chief Data Scientist and a small team of engineers and analysts that partner with policy experts to improve and innovate using data within their research; and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) has a Chief Research and Data Officer and team that is making data a key product for their membership, which in turn drives better use of data operationally across the organization. 

By establishing a central team, even if just a small team, nonprofits have a means to increase data literacy across their organizations. They are also nonprofits that are well equipped to take advantage of the other trends we see. 

Trend #2: Cloud data platforms make data accessible across the enterprise nonprofit landscape

To assess and act on data, departments and teams need data. I guess that’s obvious; however, to do this effectively, many nonprofits rely upon a wide and varied mix of disparate reports from many digital systems and tools — such as CRM, service delivery, membership, accounting, fundraising, grantmaking, and maybe even some impact reporting. By storing all organizational data in one place, organizations no longer have to deal with the complexity of searching various discrete data stores to locate individual records.

In 2020 there is a clear new winner for how to aggregate, manage, model, and make your data available across every department: cloud-based data services that scale as you need them. A decade of big business investing in big data has driven the cost of these platforms way down. Data services and tools that used to be affordable only to large commercial organizations are now well within reach for enterprise nonprofits to take a modern approach to data management.

Trend #3: Organizations are using data to increase their funding opportunities

Grantmakers, governments, and impact investors are seeking proven models they can scale to solve the challenges that face our world. Large nonprofits can increase their competitiveness in seeking funding by baking data into the programs and initiatives they are pitching to funders. 

Depending upon the problems your nonprofit tackles, and the nature of your program, this could take a number of forms. Here are two:

  1. Make data a key output of your program. So often, especially for policy-focused organizations tackling health, education, the environment or other challenging issues, it’s the final report that is seen as the primary output. Organizations that make data a central deliverable of their program can increase their impact — making it accessible for the sector at large to make better decisions — and can attract attention from funders looking for solutions that provide ongoing benefits. For example, we worked with NYU’s School of Population Health to secure funding for CityHealthDashboard.com by building a modern data platform directly into their funding request. 
  1. Demonstrate how your program will use data to continually improve. What process and systems will you build into your program from the very beginning to assure your funders that your team can track data and continually improve its outputs? Describe them in your funding request, and include them in your strategic thinking as you plan. 

This year, look for ways to make data as a product, not just an afterthought. These are a few key trend areas where we see the importance of data continuing to impact the NGO sector in the decade ahead.

Written By

Kurt Voelker

Vice President, Business Strategy and Growth, Forum One

Looking to streamline the way you collect and analyze your data in 2020? Get in touch today for a free consultation with our data management and warehouse experts.