Help! My Nonprofit Needs A Data Nerd | Beth's Blog

Help! My Nonprofit Needs A Data Nerd


Last week, I facilitated a mini-innovation lab on measuring impact for grantees of the Google Nonprofit program at the Impact Hub.  The workshop used design-thinking based on Luma methodology to help participants develop a communications strategy for measuring impact.      The process took participants through an assessment of the problems facing them, collective brainstorming, and prototyping.

We spent a fair amount of time framing and reframing the problem and ended up with a question that focused on data collection.

One of the concepts that the group designed was a strategy for collecting data from low income individuals which was identified as a key challenge for some participants who work with homeless populations.  The concept was genius — providing an app and free cell phone to the individuals in exchange for filling out the surveys.    Completing the survey would get them more cell phone time.      The concept included enlisting a telco partner who would provide the phones and data cards.

Help!  My Nonprofit Needs A Data Nerd!

We started off with an affinity clustering of the strengths, challenges, and opportunities for improving their organization’s practice of measuring impact and communicating about it.  The hot button issue was capacity, skills, and lack of resources.  It was articulated as:  “We don’t have the skills to analyze, slice and dice, and make sense of our data, so it is hard to do it well.”   I hear this too often from nonprofits.

The people with skills are out there.   In fact, some participants in the group mentioned using MBA students from local universities to assist with data collection.   Participants were looking for a variety of skills – from something as simple as creating pivot charts on excel, importing data from multiple sources into one spreadsheet for analysis or what DJ Patel calls ‘Data Jujitsu,” doing a statistic analysis, setting up a conversion analysis in google anlaytics, and other technical skills.     I was surprised that many of the participants hadn’t heard of or taken advantage of the many useful and free resources out there for getting a pro bono volunteer to do some of the technical skills.   This post is a round up of how to find volunteers and others to assist with the nitty gritty data skills.

1.  Look Within Your Walls: The first place to look is down the hall or ask at your next board meeting.   There may be someone in another department who is a data nerd with expert excel or data analysis skills.    Ask around.   Or maybe you have a board member who works in the business world and is or has connections to people who work in finance, market research, or analytics.

2.  Recruit Through LinkedIn: On LinkedIn profiles, members can “signal” their interest in skilled volunteering for a nonprofit.   To find someone, just used the advanced search function.    LinkedIn also encourages nonprofit to post job descriptions for skilled volunteers and especially working with one of their partners: Catchafire,NPower’s Community CorpsTaproot Foundation andVolunteerMatch.   I’ve said this many times, but if I was running a nonprofit today, I would sign up for this service and put together an advisory group of data nerds to help with my data and measurement needs.

3.  Get Free Help with Your Google Analytics: The Analysis Exchange has a goal to “dramatically increase the number of people on Earth doing web analytics the right way.”  They provide free web analytics consulting to non-profits and NGOs around the world by matching analytics professionals, students, and charities.   The team works on a practical project that take less than four weeks to complete.
They are teaching digital measurement best practices by connecting great causes with experienced mentors and motivated students.

4.  Find a Data Scientist with a Heart: Data Scientists are in high demand and have an unusual skill set, including:  data jujitsu skills (combine data from different places, clean it, analyze it, and make sense of it).    The organization, DataKind, has a program that matches Data Scientists with nonprofits to help them better use their data.    So, if you have a pile of data in spreadsheets that hasn’t been analyzed, go find your organization a data scientist.

5.  Get Training : Data for Good is an association for people who work in nonprofit and data and offers the “Do Good Data University”  where you find excellent webinars on a variety topics.    NTEN is offering regular webinars on the topic of how nonprofits can effectively use data. IdealWare offers a number of data related webinar courses and a free nonprofit data workbook.   Leap of Reason offers toolkits for boards, nonprofits, and foundations on “do it yourself” outcomes based measurement.  Google offers the free MOOC called “Google Analytics Academy.”  Or if you are a self-learner and just need to learn a few techniques for creating charts in excel, here’s some terrific video tutorials.  If you want to take a course, here is a great list.

6. Read Sector Blogs That Cover Data: If you want to stay current on data in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector,  the best place to go is Lucy Bernholz’s Philanthropy 2173 Blog.   Start with this this post about Data as a buzz word, subscribe to Lucy’s blog, and read  ”Navigating the New Social Economy.”    Another place to keep current on data is Markets for Good, an initiative to discover how the social sector can better use and share information to improve outcomes and change lives.    NTEN is also publishing blog posts, articles, and reports and a good place to start is their September NTEN Journal  issue on data.   The Guide Star blog also covers big data for the nonprofit sector.    You can easily follow nonprofit data nerds on Twitter by subscribing to the list I’ve put together.

7.  Hire A Consultant: NTEN’s annual nonprofit technology conference and other events,  you will find an ecosystem of consultants who do measurement, data analysis, and other skills required to make sense of your data.     If you are looking for an evaluation specialist, check out the American Evaluators Association directory.   Or ask around for consultants that your colleagues have used.   (And my co-author, KD Paine, has been doing measurement consulting for nonprofits and businesses for over 25 years)

8.  Become Someone’s Homework: If you have a college or university in your town, why not become someone’s homework?  Both my books, “Networked Nonprofit,” and  ”Measuring the Networked Nonprofit” has been added to the syllabus of many college courses – from nonprofit management survey courses, philanthropy, communications,  measurement, and more.   I speak to college students regularly, many times through skype like this group of students in Indiana this past month who shared stories about their internships which often included measurement and spreadsheets.   Some courses, like this one for nonprofits and communications taught by my colleague Shonali Burke, often include a student project working with a nonprofit.

9.   Attend a Data for Good or Impact Measurement Panel, Networking Event or Conference: For example, the Independent Sector had a packed house for the Data 360 Panel and put together this set of resources.      If you go to a session at a nonprofit conference, you will probably not only find data nerds presenting, but the room might just be packed with them too.

10.   Expand Your Nonprofit Measurement and Data Bookshelf: Here are two recent publications for nonprofits and impact measurement.

Impact and Excellent:  Data-Driven Strategies for Nonprofits by Sheri Chaney Jones
Presenting Data Effectively:  Communicating About Impact by Stephanie Evergreen
Leap of Reason Books (Free download)

So, if you are not using data or measurement because your organization does not have someone with the skills,  there are ways around this challenge!   Has your organization solved the big challenge of lack of skills, resources, or staff to do impact measurement?  How and what is your experience?

8 Responses

  1. Mike Cunko says:

    Great article, and a great list of resources as well!

    One theme we’ve found while working with organizations to publish their data is that the data is never as “bad” as it seems. It is VERY important to work with someone who doesn’t live in, or see the data every day. Whether that person is from within your organization, or outside you’d be surprised what a second vantage point will give you!

    One of our partners collected survey data based around the factors communities they served viewed as major issues in their individual communities. They aggregated this information in a large spreadsheet but couldn’t figure out how to leverage it. By looking at what they considered unusable data through a different lens we were able to create a useful resource.

    We created a site where potential donors can select “factors” they are most able to contribute to, and respond with a list of the communities that indicated they are most adversely affected by those factors. In short, we used the survey data to help better connect volunteers to their communities through a more productive resource allocation.

    Keep you eyes open and the data flowing!

  2. 501Partners says:

    We are a technology company that provides Salesforce solutions to nonprofits. All of our staff come from nonprofit backgrounds, and it is our mission to help you best achieve yours. Whether you’re already using Salesforce or you’re looking to implement it, we can help! Contact us today!

  3. Amazing article with very useful resources. Beth thanks for your helpful tips. This can definitely help a organization that does not have the funds to spend, such as a non profit.

  4. […] her recent blog post, Help! My nonprofit needs a data nerd, nonprofit technology expert Beth Kanter explains that most nonprofits don't have "data nerds" on […]

  5. Kathy Pettit says:

    We coordinate a great national network of local data intermediaries in 35 cities – the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). They organize local neighborhood data and help community groups and government agencies use it in decisionmaking. See for more information.

    You can also check out the Urban Institute’s and San Francisco Federal Reserve’s new volume of essays on using data in community development in health –

  6. Beth says:

    Kathy – thanks so much for sharing the indicators project. What a fantastic resource!

  7. […] Kanter – Help! My Nonprofit Needs a Data Nerd (great resources throughout this […]

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