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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. Connecting the output of resources to the value perceptions of supporters is paramount in the long-term relationship, no matter what logistical or technological challenges may exist. Unfortunately, the systems and tools needed to provide evidence-backed results are generally: (1) not a nonprofit’s strong suit and (2) cost so much that 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 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 analysis with integrity. For nonprofits that typically do not have the capacity or technical know-how, 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. Mission alignment, board support, staff empowerment, and focusing on the communities you serve are all critical aspects of your organization. While it is easy to add evaluations driven by the funder,  ask yourself: Is it a vanity metric, or 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 more complex as most organizations have been collecting the same metrics and data for many years without re-evaluating.

Start by asking your stakeholders a few 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 goals?
  • 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 second and third-level value questions that can build a story and go beyond what funder requirements.

Most nonprofit organizations have 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 is: What KPIs does your organization need to track and report that may not be within funder 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, how many families have benefitted during a specific 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 identified financial stability, education, and employment needs and provided 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:

  • They successfully transitioned from two lower-paying part-time positions to a single full-time position with benefits that better support the family.
  • They 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 organization’s outcomes on a "per client" and aggregate client count basis. The gains for the client and family began with a crisis need for groceries and continued 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 asking questions to help identify the true return on investment (ROI) of dollars funded in relation to participant outcomes.

To replicate the above-mentioned client story, 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 becoming fully enrolled in 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 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. More and more nonprofit boards and funders are asking, and in some cases demanding, greater visibility into the organization's performance and impact. While this was once reserved for the largest of businesses and nonprofits, you should expect these demands and begin preparing now. If we can help, please let us know.


This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.

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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