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  • Ryan Brooks

Nonprofit Data Strengths, Challenges, and Obstacles

Updated: Jan 31

Why Some Nonprofits Excel with Data and Others Don't


Over the past couple of months, I've spoken with staff at numerous nonprofits across the country to learn some of the strengths, challenges, and obstacles nonprofits have related to data collection, analysis, and reporting.


Below are some insights that have emerged so far. They are not meant to be judgmental about what nonprofits are doing or not doing, nor are they meant to be "excuses" for nonprofits that could be doing more. What's obvious from these conversations is that there is a wide variety of points-of-view about how nonprofits "should" approach their data, and there's no silver bullet that would unlock nonprofits ability to do more with data (except maybe stacks and stacks of cash).


Data Collection Strengths of Nonprofits


  • Nonprofits are Good at Doing What They Need to Do to Deliver Services

    • Most organizations are good at collecting the data they need to provide their services, and collecting more data would not necessarily lead to better outcomes.

    • Nonprofits are often good at collecting data for compliance/accountability despite the fact that this type of data collection is not very rewarding (i.e. it feels like data collection for the sake of data collection).

    • Nonprofits that invest more in data capacity identify ways to provide services more efficiently or effectively, and tell their story in more compelling ways.


Factors Associated with Nonprofits that have Strong Data Practices


They Have a Data First Mindset

  • It’s easier for nonprofits to collect data that can be useful for self-evaluation and improvement when programs are created with data in mind from the beginning.

  • Nonprofits that have a culture of learning can embrace data as a tool for change and improvement.

  • Nonprofits with leaders that value data for learning and decision making are more likely to lean more into data.

Money Matters

  • When organizations are larger and have more resources, they are generally can and do hire data specialists.

  • When organizations have more flexible (i.e. unrestricted) resources, they have the freedom to hire staff that can concentrate on data


As a side note, I don't have a solid definition of what "larger" organizations means, but my sense is that we are talking about organizations with 15 to 25 staff. This suggests that data specialists (or analysts or managers) are not likely to be part of most organizations. Therefore, data management, planning, and analysis would need to be part of someone's job, not their entire job.


Factors that can Prevent Nonprofits from Focusing More on Data


Staff Turnover at Nonprofits is Common and has Compounding Effects

  • Staff turnover was mentioned repeatedly as a reason for data struggles. The one person who knows how to do X leaves, and that causes all kinds of issues while the organization gets back on track.

  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and definitions of key terms (e.g. what "housing stability" means) are often not written down, and that makes staff churn even more painful and difficult to manage.

Nonpr0fits Can Struggle to Hire or Develop the Right Skills

  • Finding staff with the right skills is difficult, and most nonprofit organizations don’t need data scientists or PhDs

  • Case managers, social workers, clinical staff, and others often don’t have time in their days time to learn to build dashboards or explore spreadsheets so they can get more comfortable with data.

  • It can be difficult to find the right opportunities for staff to learn those skills. If you don't gain these skills in a degree or certificate program, or you haven't used the skills in the past decade after you learned them, then it can be hard to find the right resources or mentoring.


Reasons Nonprofits Don’t Invest More Resources in Data


Say It With Me - "Staff Turnover!"

  • Staff turnover bites us again. Nonprofits dealing with frequent staff turnover will struggle to invest in new data collection tech or to collect additional data when they are trying to deliver critical services while they are understaffed.

  • Sometimes it makes more sense to stick with a tool that is widely understood (paper files, spreadsheets) than to invest in something that requires new training and retraining. (see also the lack of SOPs noted above)

Many Nonprofits Do a Pretty Good Job Without It

  • Risk, Inertia, & Leave Well-Enough Alone - The way many organizations collect and report data seems to work well enough. They deliver services, they appease funders, and they can move on. Given all the other things listed, adding more data, more forms, and more systems might not produce a positive effect. What's more, there's fear that change could actually harm their bottom line (i.e. doing as much good work as possible)

This reminds me of the old saying “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. Making a major change to data practices and/or tech is a risk fraught with uncertainty and possibly fear. Why do that if you have a pretty good, albeit imperfect, thing going?

  • Mission Focus - a dollar that goes toward a data system or a part-time data specialist is a dollar that can’t be spent on rent assistance or food or a service-focused role.

  • Short-Term Focus - the payoff of investment in more data resources and skills could take time, but doesn't help nonprofits serve the line of people today. The fact that most nonprofits deal with single year grant cycles and can be penalized if they don't "make their numbers" makes short-term focus more likely.


Money Money Money Money Money Money

  • Low Budgets - many nonprofits don’t have funding to do more than deliver the services they were founded to provide. Data feels like a necessary evil, and stepping up to something more more sophisticated can be perceived as a luxury.

  • Funding Restrictions and Our Overhead Obsession - the ongoing pressure from donors and funders to put their dollars toward services rather than “overhead” or admin costs makes it hard for many nonprofits to find the money to invest in data expertise.


Some Closing Thoughts


We all know that nonprofits are expected to provide a summer's worth of meals for $3, house a chronically homeless person for $500, and participants should never have a setback. Small budgets, restricted funding, a culture of amazing services with 0% overhead all make it harder for nonprofits to invest in their data capacity.


However, nonprofits and their missions benefit when data collection, analysis, and reporting are done well and done efficiently. Funders learn more, the organizations can improve services, and the public can see a clearer picture of both the needs and the impact of service provided. It takes leadership and flexible resources to empower nonprofits to invest in data so they can collect it, use it, and learn from it.


A Personal Note


We want to have a more conversations with nonprofits to learn more and share more. Email me us at contact@countbubble.com if you want to chat for 30 minutes about how your nonprofit deals with data challenges. I promise that it won't turn into a sales pitch.


The countbubble team is focused on helping nonprofits do good work, and we want to nurture our customers so they can gain skills and confidence in their data processes. I know, that sounds like throwaway marketing blah blah whatever. But we mean it.


If you have ideas about how we can help nurture nonprofits' skills and competence with data, email us: contact@countbubble.com or leave a comment. We are using this blog as a starting place, and we are open to other ideas.



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



Feel free to email us at contact@countbubble.com to start a conversation, or sign up for email updates.


Founder, CountBubble, LLC


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