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  • Ryan Brooks

How to Start Tracking Nonprofit Impact

3 Keys to Tracking Nonprofit Achievements for Beginners


How will we show that our work matters? How can we demonstrate that we make our community a better place? How can my nonprofit show that we deserve funding to grow our programs?


We can and should tell stories to show how our work matters. We also need to collect data that helps us show what kind of work we do and how much of it we are doing.


We have written a lot about collecting and analyzing nonprofit data, and our Nonprofit Data Collection Bootcamp is a great place to learn about lots of topics. In this post, we want to focus on the beginning of the process. How do you get started tracking your nonprofit's impact? Or, if you've already started collecting data, how do you get better?

 

Where can nonprofits nonprofits record their data?

 

You’re going to need a place to record data. You can use paper and pencil, spreadsheets, or specialized software like countbubble that helps nonprofits track and report their impact.


There are a few pros and cons about each option.

 

Tracking Data with Paper Files 


Paper files are the starting place for some nonprofits. Paper files can work well for case management or for really simple data (e.g. tracking the number of meals served per day).

 

Pros of Paper Files

  • Cheap

  • Easy to secure with a locked cabinet

  • Good enough for very simple data

  • Most people can use them with very little training


Cons of Paper Files

  • Not easily backed up - unless you want to photocopy everything

  • Can be hard manage as your organization grows

  • Probably end up doing calculations on a spreadsheet anyway

  • When you're done with sensitive data, you have to be careful about disposal


Tracking Data with Spreadsheets 


Spreadsheets (e.g. Excel or Sheets) are a great option for smaller nonprofits.


Pros of Spreadsheets

  • Cheap or free with your office suite

  • Very Flexible and powerful for skilled users

  • Most people know the basics

  • Typically available online - i.e. accessible anywhere there is an internet connection


Cons of Spreadsheets

  • Can be hard to manage and maintain as your organization grows

  • Specialized skills are required for advanced capabilities

  • Recording and viewing individual records can feel unnatural for certain roles (e.g. case management)


Tracking Data with Specialized Nonprofit Data Collection Software 


This software goes by many names - case management software, client relationship management system, impact management software, and etc. Whatever it's called, the goal is the same - it's there to help you track and report your programs and services.


Once your nonprofit gets to a certain size or complexity, or you have special data security needs, you might need to purchase case management software.


Pros

  • Data can be better organized and more secure

  • Pre-defined reports and report building tools can save you lots of time

  • Built-in user role management can restrict data access

  • Available online & multiple users can access it simultaneously.

Cons

  • It's not free and it can get very expensive (depending on the vendor)

  • It takes time to learn and implement this software

  • There are limits on what any vendor can provide, and you might need to pay extra for customizations.


Most new nonprofits will start with spreadsheets to track their data because they are cheap, flexible, and lots of people know the basics.   

  

3 keys to getting started with nonprofit data collection


  1. Create a Plan Before You Collect Data Before you record a single byte of data, you need to plan what data you can, should, and should not collect to track your programs and participants.  

  2. Create Data Policies and Procedures Written policies and procedures will help you and your team enter data consistently. You can use built-in features in spreadsheets to help you as well.  

  3. Prioritize Data Privacy and Security on Day One  Human service nonprofits collect a lot of sensitive, private data about their participants. Protecting that data should be a top concern that you regularly revisit. 

   

Create a Plan Before You Collect Data 


Before you get started adding column names in your spreadsheets, you have some planning to do. The payoff of good planning (or even ‘OK’ planning) is immeasurable. You waste less time collecting useless data. You won’t have to backtrack with every participant to ask 2 or 3 more questions for their profiles. 


Tip 1: Use a Start Small, Stay Focused Mindset 


Start with the minimum amount of data you can get away with plus a few extras.


Your nonprofit will add new data fields over time, and that’s healthy. Every new field is an opportunity to learn something new about your work or your participants. Every new field is also another piece of data that you need to collect the right way Every Single Time that you add a new client or track services.    


The Start Small, Stay Focused mindset will do 3 things:

  1. It will prevent you from collecting too much data  

  2. It will encourage you to remove fields you no longer need 

  3. It will force you to ask “is this piece of data worth collecting? What are we learning from it?” 


In short, a Start Small, Stay Focused Mindset will ensure that data activities don’t overtake your real purpose.  Remember, this is a mindset, not an action or activity. As a mindset, it will permeate your entire data planning process.  

 

Tip 2 – Define your goals for the data 


For many nonprofits the goal of data collection is to comply with grant requirements (aka accountability). “We have to collect XYZ data for grants.” This is a legitimate focus, and it’s a common starting place. But there are other goals you can consider. 


  • You will use the data to offer more targeted, customized services to each participant.  

    • Example: You might collect data of clothing sizes or food allergies to ensure that participants in your program get items that match their needs.  

  • You can use demographic data to compare your success with different groups. This might help you identify areas for improvement.    

    • Example: You might compare the success rates of single parents and childless adults to determine if you need to adjust your services.  

  • You will use demographic data to learn how your clients differ from the community. 

    • Example: You want to know how the people you serve compare to the zip codes you target. This might help you discover that you need to find different ways to serve people living in certain zip codes.  

 

You will use your goals to create the list of fields that you need to achieve each goal. And yes, you'll also add in all of those fields that funders require... 


Tip 3 – If you offer services for people, then track their basic demographics 

 

Demographics are data about the people you serve. Race, ethnicity, age, gender-identity, and income are common demographics. You might also see value in knowing the size and composition of the family or household, or veteran status.


Why collect demographics? 

  1. Funders will often want to know who you serve, or they might have funding for certain groups (e.g. single moms, veterans, homeless single adults).  

  2. Simple demographic summaries will help you know who you serve and let you assess whether that aligns with your mission.  

  3. Demographic analysis is a powerful tool to help you learn how to improve .

 

Identify the demographics that you need (for funders), the ones you care about to ensure you are meeting your mission.


Tip 4 – Figure out what data matters most 


If you are working with a “Start Small, Stay Focused” mindset and you know your goals, then you can prioritize data that matters most. This is data you will report to your board, data you are likely to include in grant proposals, and data that helps you meet your goals. 

 

How can you figure out what data matters most? 


Start by making a list of all of the data you might want to collect and answer these questions:

  1. Is this piece of data required by my funders (or likely funders)?

  2. Is this piece of data needed to help us achieve our goals? 


You have a tiny bit of wiggle room to collect extra data. Not much. You only want a few "Yes" responses to the following questions:

  1. Is this data that might eventually be valuable? (e.g. for grant proposals or understanding the people we serve)

  2. Will this piece of data help us answer a question that could alter the way we do our work?


You might decide that you don't want to collect anything extra. That's okay. Some day, you'll probably decide to add a few new data fields because you have or because you see an opportunity to learn something valuable.

 

Create Data Policies and Procedures 

 

Even if you are a team of 1, data policies and procedures (P&P) will help you enter data consistently and efficiently.  Data P&P will help you any time you revisit your data after a long break, any time you get a volunteer to help you, and any time you hire a new team member.


Data policies and procedures are basically a set of rules to follow for tracking data. This saves you headaches down the road when you want to analyze and summarize your results. It also supports your data security efforts.

 

Tip 1 – Set Data Entry Formatting Standards 


Data formatting standards are rules that dictate how data should be entered. They make it much easier to analyze your data. Without these standards, you'll spend way more time cleaning and recoding before you can analyze it.


  • In what format will dates be stored -  2024/06/30 or June 30, 2024, or something else?  

  • How will genders be identified? (Male, M, Man?? Female, F, Woman?? Other, Some Other Gender, Something Else??) 

  • How will you record income? Weekly Income?, Monthly Income? Annual Income? Will you round to the nearest dollar?  



Tip 2 – Set timelines for when things need to be completed 

Some data entry is time sensitive while some can be done days or weeks later. Does all data entry need to be done in real time, the same day, the same week? 


For example, imagine that you offer a food pantry service 3 days per week. Participants can get food once per calendar month. Does it make sense you enter your food pantry data once a month? Monthly data entry might not help you ensure that people are coming at the correct frequency. It might make more sense to ensure that all pantry data is entered by end-of-day every Friday.


Tip 3 – Set Rules for what NOT to do 


It's good to explicitly say what people should not record in your data system. Be as clear and detailed as possible.


  • Don’t collect social security numbers or use SSN as the unique ID. 

  • Don’t add family household members who do not benefit from the service. 

  • Don’t record private health information even when it is disclosed.


NOTE: These are just examples, not necessarily policies you should adopt 


Tip 4 – Explain all of the data that should be collected for key activities and events

 

List in detail each data field that should be provided each time you provide a service, achieve an outcome, or complete a key activity.


When you add a new client to your database or provide a service to an existing client, what data should be collected?


For example, we can specify the data should be recorded for each food pantry distribution

  • ID of person getting food (ID)

  • Name of person getting food (open text field)

  • Number of people in household (number)

  • Amount of food provided (in pounds) (number only)

  • Date of activity (date)

  • Next date they are eligible to receive food (Date)

  • Special dietary adjustments (open text field)


Tip 5 – Define all key terms


Policies and procedures promote consistent, timely, accurate data entry.

All key terms should be clearly defined. Anything that could possibly be misunderstood should be clearly defined and include examples for additional clarity.


  • If your food pantry tracks "meals" distributed, then define what a "meal" is.

  • If a staff member offers case management, coaching, and counseling, then define what each of those terms means.


Prioritize Data Privacy and Security on Day One 

 

Disclaimer: This document offers general ideas about data privacy and security, and it is incomplete. It’s not legal advice and shouldn’t even be considered expert advice. It’s not focused on complying with standards (e.g. HIPAA). It’s simply meant to encourage you to act with great care because the data you collect about your participants deserves to be protected with great care. If you believe you need expert advice on data privacy, sharing, governance, or security, then consult with an expert.   

 

 It is essential that nonprofits (1) limit who has access to sensitive data. (2) secure it as well as possible, and (3) safely delete/destroy unneeded data.   


Tip 1 - Care about privacy and security of your data tool first, second, and third 

 

If you are serving individuals in your community, you can imagine that you would collect information like name, date of birth, address, email, phone number, family members’ names, and etc. You’re probably also collecting data about what services you’ve offered them and possibly case notes.  


Put it all together, and you have very private data that should be protected carefully.


Always remember what could happen if you lose control of that data.


Tip 2 - If you don't need it, then don't collect it

 

Do we really need to collect X piece of data to offer our service or run needed reports? 

  • Do we really need a person’s social security, driver’s license, health insurance card number?

  • Do we really need their bank info and routing number? 


If you don't need it, then don't collect it - especially when the data would be very harmful if you lose control of it.

 

Tip 3 - Determine who can, should, and should not have access to data


Ask yourself the following about data access: 

  • Who can access this data? 

  • Who needs access to this data? 

  • Who should not have access to this data?   

 

Here you can even consider different parts of your data, not your data as a whole.

  • Do your board members need access to info about your clients?  

  • Does a grant writer need access to case notes, or is summarized data enough? 

  • Do volunteers need to look up someone's recent history using one of your services, or should a staff member handle that? 

 

Tip 4 - Create a data retention and disposal policy


How long do you need to keep the data you collect? It can be hard to let it go, but sometimes you need to clean out old data to protect yourself and the people you've served.   

 

Millions of us have been victims of data breaches from schools, businesses, healthcare systems, and more. Don't risk the data of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people because you can't let go of old data.


Summarize what you need (e.g. how many meals did we serve in 2013, how many people did we help get jobs in 2014) and get rid of everything that you can

 

So, how long do you need to keep that data?  This is tough to answer, but

  • Follow any applicable records retention regulations for your line of work

  • A good place to start is asking your peers how long they keep data before they purge it

 

No data system is perfect. Mistakes will be made.  

 

In a prior job, I created a set of spreadsheets to collect data. It included dropdown menus, data mapping from multiple locations, formulas to reduce simple arithmetic errors, locked cells, error checking to ensure users were completing it properly.  All of this was added over time to prevent data entry errors and oversights.  


Each year, I updated it to make it easier to complete and less prone to errors.  And, each year, the same 5 or 6 issues popped up over and over. These errors were so common that I created email templates to describe, explain, and help correct them.  


Clearly, the system that I created was flawed. 

 

Your system will be flawed too.  


People will make mistakes with data entry, sometimes repeatedly.  


You might find yourself in the position of having a set of email templates that you send out.  

 

It is part of the process.  





Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.


 countbubble is case management simplified. We can help your nonprofit master data collection and reporting. Email us contact@countbubble.com  or sign up for email updates on blog posts, useful content for nonprofits, and product updates.


Founder, CountBubble, LLC


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