A few weeks ago I asked my email subscribers to share what they struggled with most when using data at their nonprofit. 

I wanted to share a response from someone who says, “I’m at stage one, forming a new nonprofit, so I’d guess finding the right data to use to support our mission is the first step.” 

First of all,  I LOVE this question because it means that this person is planning to use data from the very beginning of their nonprofit journey! The importance of using data regularly is something that some nonprofits don’t understand until a few years down the road. 

Ok, to answer the question, the first thing to keep in mind is that starting a nonprofit is very similar to starting a for profit business. This means that instead of starting with your mission or what your organization is all about, you start with a problem that needs to be solved. And then come up with the solution to the problem, whether that be a product or a service. 

So, my recommendation is to start by identifying data that speaks to your problem, not your mission. 

This data can come from a number of places.

  • It could be anecdotal, such as your own observations of things you’ve heard or seen in your community.
  • Another data source is to talk to people, whether that be one-on-one interviews or focus groups.
  • You might also create a survey to get an understanding of people’s experiences.
  • If possible, find quantitative data at the city, state, or national levels that speaks to the problem.

Once you have multiple sources of information, it becomes much easier to make the case your nonprofit. 

Let’s go through a quick example. Suppose that someone wants to create an after school reading program for 3rd grade students. 

This person decided to create this program after tutoring a few students from her local elementary school and found that reading proficiency for the 3rd graders is a cause for concern. (This is the anecdotal data that I mentioned earlier.)

This person then goes to the school district website and finds that 3rd grade reading proficiency scores for their local elementary school are much lower than the entire school district and the state at large. 

Finally, this person decides to dig a little deeper and interview 3rd grade teachers to understand their experiences with teaching reading. After talking to those teachers, they learn that from kindergarten to second grade, students are learning to read. But, by 3rd grade they transition to reading to learn. So, by that point they should already understand the basic mechanics of reading so they can read more complex texts. However, many 3rd graders at your local school are still learning to read. 

This person also comes across a study that found that 3rd grade students who aren’t reading proficiently are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than children who do read proficiently by that time.This gives even more evidence that focusing on 3rd graders at this school is absolutely critical. 

This person now has data from a number of sources to help them speak to why the 3rd reading program is needed at their elementary school. 

Do you have a question about how to use data to support your nonprofit’s work?

Complete this brief survey and I’ll try to answer it!