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Using Data to Increase Impact

The WOW factor: measure and align value for the board, funders, and constituents.

The motivations for philanthropic giving can vary significantly from people, foundations, corporations, and other entities. Once the decision to give has been made, it is then up to the board members of the nonprofit to ensure the organization is a good steward of the resources. However present any logistical or technological challenges, connecting the output  of resources to the value perceptions of supporters is paramount in the long-term relationship. Unfortunately, the systems and tools needed to provide evidence-backed results are generally (1) not a nonprofit’s strong suit and (2) often cost so much they are out of reach. 

With increasing calls for visibility, impact measurement, and accountability, nonprofits must improve their use of data both in decision-making and in reporting. Furthermore, if they are to attract and retain funding, they must have a clear plan to achieve their mission and demonstrate their results.

While you likely have data, the challenge is transforming it into a usable format and then conducting the analytics with integrity. For nonprofits who typically do not have the capacity or technical knowhow, this is often where the conversation begins and ends. This does not need to be the case. 

Bowtie has helped countless nonprofits and small businesses with the same challenges. Here is what we recommend:

1.      Define Success: Perform an audit of your organization’s goals, critical activities, and outcomes.

You can’t be everything to everyone, and this starts with defining success. The alignment of your mission, support from your board, empowerment of your staff, and keeping who you serve meaningful are all critical aspects of your organization. While it is easy to add evaluations driven by the funder,  ask yourself this: Is it a vanity metric or is it helping further your mission?
This first step requires both a mindset shift and a potential investment in technology. It is important to note that, of the two, the mindset shift is much harder as most organizations have been collecting the same metrics and data for many years without re-evaluating.

Start with asking your stakeholders a few of these questions. Remember it’s people first, process second, and technology third.

  • What is your organization’s purpose or goal?
  • What processes are in place to support those?
  • What tools do the program directors use?
  • Which processes are inefficient, redundant, or take too long?
  • Which systems are used? Are they sharing data (interoperable)?


2.      Start asking 2nd and 3rd level value questions that can build a story and go beyond what is required by the funders.

Most nonprofit organizations have some kind of funder-specific metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) they need to track and report. Many of those metrics have been in place for an exceptionally long time, even though the needs and/or underlying criteria for program support might have changed. Whenever a client comes to us, the first question we ask them is: What KPIs does your Organization need to track and report that may not be within the funder set of metrics? Why would this be important? 

That question inevitably leads to the most important topic - the actual impact of a specific program or service. For instance, a food bank can most likely tell you how many pounds of food they have provided and, in some cases, to how many families during a certain timeframe. In turn, fine-tuned analytics can seamlessly identify the total amount of meals, the proportion of meals identified as “nutritious”, and the dollar value of the associated food distributions. But the next level question that properly analyzed data can help answer is:  Where do you see the benefits in improving the quality of life / outcomes for your program participants most? 

Below is a real-life example of how data systems can help identify client/organization success stories:

Client A visits a food pantry in crisis mode. While receiving grocery items for their family, the nonprofit representative asked Client A a series of distinct questions to help identify other needs. These answers were recorded into a live data system that triggered referrals that flow to various other programs, both within the organization and externally partnered organizations. Upon continued engagement with Client A, the organization was able to identify financial stability, education, and employment needs and provide the correlating wrap-around services for each. Over a period, this client received financial coaching services, employment coaching services, and high school equivalency curriculum and testing.

The tangible outcomes for the client were:

  • Successfully transitioning from two lower paying part-time positions to a single full-time position with benefits that better support the family.
  • Earned their high school equivalency curriculum and certificate.
  • Their Financial Capability Scale scores increased by 30+%. 

The data already in the system was extracted and used to track the start, interim, and end results essential for telling and quantifying a nonprofit org’s outcomes on a ‘per client’ and aggregate client count basis. These gains for the client and family began with a crisis need for groceries and continues with established growth within other stabilizing program offerings.


3.      Ask questions that can identify operational strengths and weaknesses

The organization referenced above moved beyond donor-required questions and started asking second and third level questions resulting in a deeper understanding of the effectiveness and impact of their programs and services. Their donors and constituents could not be happier.  This organization is now starting to ask questions to help identify the true ROI of dollars funded in relation to participant outcomes.
In order to replicate the above-mentioned client story many times over within an organization, the organization would do well to seek out the answers to the following questions and act quickly upon them:

  • How did we help the client do that?
  • What worked?
  •  What did not work?

By leveraging data analytics, organizations can arrive at live dashboard views that answer the following questions: 

  • How many times were clients initially contacted before they became fully enrolled within services? 
  • What mode of outreach appears to work significantly better and during what timelines (i.e. outreach within the first 24 hours, continued follow-up within the following weeks or months, etc.)?  
  • What level of participant involvement within programs delivers the greatest outcomes/results?

Similar to how businesses will routinely quantify and manage their employees’ efforts, nonprofit organizations can also closely monitor the level of consistent engagement provided by their personnel and volunteers.  Data analytics can help shine the spotlight on organizations’ superstars; This includes those who are kicking it into higher gear with their coaching or volunteer efforts, how each personnel’s corresponding measurable metrics stack up in comparison to the next, and what best practices can be shared with the rest of the team or organization to ultimately provide the greatest results possible for the most people in need.
In summary, stakeholder management, client engagement, and performance management are no longer reserved for the for-profit sector. Analytics is not just about the volume of information, but also  identifying the outlier information as well. More and more nonprofits’ boards and funders are asking, and in some cases demanding, for greater visibility into the organization, the organization’s performance, and ultimately that organization’s impact. While this was once reserved for the largest of businesses and nonprofits, you can and should expect these demands and begin preparing now. If we can help, please let us know.

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About the Author

Bowtie is a comprehensive data management and business Intelligence software-as-a-service company headquartered in Dallas, TX. Bowtie's patent-pending 'extract, transform and load’ (ETL) platform enables organizations of any size to connect to nearly any data source (internal or external), transform unstructured data and make it useful for analytics, reporting or for other systems. Bowtie is consistently ranked a top performer given how quickly, securely and affordably they are able to provide clean data and analytics.

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