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  • Ryan Brooks

What Data Should My Nonprofit Collect

Updated: Apr 23

Collect the Right Data to Show Your Nonprofit's Impact


Nonprofits of all sizes collect data to tell their story and show they are making a difference.  Whether you provide services to seniors, keep your environment clean, or help animals find homes, data is critical.  


Pretty much every nonprofit that wants to grow or do better will need to collect data. On occasion, you might find a church that offers “community meals” and doesn't seem to care about the numbers, or a brand new, mission-focused nonprofit that doesn't track data. Those types of organizations are wonderful. But, most nonprofits need data about their programs; they deal with accountability; and often they want to expand their programs and their impact.


As you think about the data you will collect, consider your data point of view. It will shape the data you decide to collect and your goals for the data once you have it.  

 

This post is a low jargon explanation of the data your nonprofit needs to collect.  It's perfect if you are just starting your nonprofit, or if you are rethinking the data you want to collect.

 

Key types of data for nonprofits collect 

 

Nonprofits Should Track Services Delivered (aka outputs)


In nonprofit jargon, services delivered are called “outputs”. 

 

The easiest examples of services delivered are the tangible things so many nonprofits provide. Many nonprofits provide meals, articles of clothing, diapers, and more.  So much stuff that we can touch and feel and often consume.

 

Nonprofits also deliver an infinite variety of intangible services.  We can't touch or feel these services, but they can be just as impactful. This can include job coaching sessions, mentoring, counseling, support groups, and so much more.

 

Nonprofits Should Track The Successes They Achieve (aka Outcomes)


All of those services you deliver might result in larger successes. We call those larger successes "outcomes" 


A few examples might help you make sense of this. The outcomes are in bold text.


  1. A nonprofit might hope that a bunch of job coaching sessions will eventually lead to a person getting a living-wage job.  

  2. Twenty-five (25) hours one-on-one reading tutoring could lead to a child reading at grade level.

  3. $1,000 in financial assistance, 2 budgeting workshops, and 3 calls to landlords might result in a person obtaining safe affordable housing.

 

These are individual-level outcomes, and this is a very common approach for human service organizations. A nonprofit does good stuff for a person, and the person is better off in a meaningful way.


Nonprofits can use group-level outcomes.


For example, your program might offer an in-school mentoring program to ten elementary schools in your community.


The schools with your mentoring program might have lower rates of disciplinary actions, higher overall test scores, and higher overall student engagement compared to similar schools that do not have this kind of program.

 

This is a good approach to measuring successes if your nonprofit provides programs and services in a targeted area or to specific groups of people - such as 3rd graders in certain schools.

 

Nonprofits should track who they serve

 

If your nonprofit serves people, then you should track the people you serve. But, you need more than just a head count. You also need to track data about the people you serve. Your nonprofit needs to collect demographic data - such as race, gender, education, income, household size, and more.


Why is tracking who you serve important?


On the most basic level, human service nonprofits should be able to say how many people they serve. If you don't count them somehow, then you can't do that very well.


You need to know how many unique people your nonprofit serves each year or some other time period (i.e. total people served). To know that, you need a way to identify and track each person you serve as a unique individual. You might record that data in a spreadsheet or you might use case management software like countbubble to help you track and report that data.


If you offer multiple services, you need to know how many unique people use each service. For example, you need to be able to report the total people served in the food pantry, the total people served with financial assistance, and etc. To know that, you need a way to identify each person you serve, and count them separately for each different service they receive. Your nonprofit can use a spreadsheet for this, but it gets more complicated as you add more services.


Beyond getting these basic counts of people served, demographic data allows you to describe, understand, and compare the groups that you serve. Demographic data gives you the ability to look at your services and successes (aka outputs and outcomes) and understand them in a new way. You can learn about the people you serve, compare them to your target community, examine the success rates of different groups, and much more.


With demographics, start with the minimum amount you need and gradually work you way to more data over time. It's tempting to track tons of demographic data, but that is rarely the best approach when you get started.


How to decide what data to collect at you nonprofit

 

Your nonprofit should track a service if you answer “Yes” to any of these questions: 


  1. Do we devote a lot of resources to this service?    (You can pick your definition of “a lot”, but resources include time, money, volunteer hours, marketing efforts on social media or your website, and more).  

  2. Do we want to raise more money (especially from foundations or governments) to support this service?  If you raise money to support a specific service, then you definitely need to track how much of it you are providing.

  3. Do we receive grant funding to support this service?  Most grant funders will want to know how much of the service you delivered thanks to the money they provided. (e.g. we provided 5,000 meals with your generous support)

  4. Do we want this service to grow?    Aside from the obvious need to track data to demonstrate whether the program is growing, your nonprofit also needs data to attract funding to expand the service.   

  5. Do we want this service to get better?  Peter Drucker once famously said “[only] what gets measured, gets managed.”    Is that true? Eh, maybe sometimes. Maybe not always. But, having data is often useful for improving programs because, at the very least, you can see whether you are satisfied with the results.  Without data, you're just going with your gut.

 

Your nonprofit should track a Success if you answer “Yes” to any of these questions: 


Repeat the questions above, but swap in the word “Success” or “Outcome” for the word “Service” 


  1. Do we devote a lot of resources to achieving this success (i.e. outcome)?   

  2. Do we want to raise more money (especially from foundations or governments) to support this outcome? 

  3. Do we receive grant funding for the purpose of achieving this outcome? 

  4. Do we want to achieve this success more often (i.e. more times per year)?   

  5. Do we want to get better at achieving this outcome (e.g. greater effectiveness or efficiency)? 

 

You need to track data about the people you serve (i.e. demographics) if you answer “Yes” to any of these questions: 


  1. Do we support a specific population or target a certain group of people? Care about seniors? Track birthdate. Want to support under-employed high school dropouts? Track education and employment status.

  2. Does a funder demand we serve a specific group with their funding? Does the funder want you to serve single parents in shelters? Track their housing and family structure.

  3. Do you want to compare services delivered or successes achieved among different groups? Do you want to know if veterans and non-veterans get jobs at the same rate in your program? Do you want to know if your food pantry is more likely to serve single parents or multi-parent households? If you have questions that compare groups, then you need to collect data about your clientele to associate them with groups.

  4. Are you curious to learn more about a group you serve, and collecting the data won't be a major burden - even if there is no immediate benefit? Nonprofits can and should collect new data about the people they serve when it will help them learn something about the people they serve or how they can improve their programming. E.G. You want to learn whether you have a food pantry and you want to learn about religious dietary restrictions so that you can buy appropriate food. As long as the resources required are modest, and you have a specific reason to collect the data, it's okay to do it - even if you can't take immediate action on what you learn.

 

Nonprofits must also say “no” to collecting data


So far our advice about data has been “Say Yes”, but, “No” is often the better answer. Your nonprofit should not collect every conceivable piece of data. Data collection takes lots of resources - staff time, time from the people you serve, technology resources, planning, and (hopefully) analysis of the data you collect.


It can also feel invasive, unnecessary, and a waste of time for all people involved.

Nonprofits should say "no" to collecting a piece of data unless there is a clear "Yes" reason for it.  

 

Say to Collecting Data “No” When 


Assuming you don’t have a current funder asking for the data 


  1. You don’t have an immediate, obvious interest in the data 

  2. You can’t analyze the data (i.e. you don't have the skills)

  3. You won’t analyze the data (i.e. you don't have the time)

 

Assuming you have a small funder or potential funder asking for the data 


  1. It would be disruptive to your services

  2. It will harm relationships that you have with participants 

  3. The amount of time it takes to collect is not balanced by the funding being offered 

  4. It’s not a sustainable funding source

  5. You can't see any potential short run or long run benefit to having the data beyond the funding opportunity

 

You don't want to bend over backwards, spend a lot of time, and change how you operate to get a one-time $5,000 grant.

 

What are your goals for the data you collect?


Nonprofits collect a lot of data because they must. They have grant requirements and government compliance reasons to collect certain data.


You do what you have to do in order to keep the mission alive.


But, data can be more interesting and more gratifying if you create goals for your data and focus on those goals. Goals that focus on achieving outcomes more frequently, serving more families, or increasing the satisfaction of the people you serve are more motivating than "Health and Human Services say we have to track X, so we are tracking X"


Maybe X is boring, but can you take it, add a few more bits of data to it, and find a way to learn from it?


If you can (1) prioritize goals for your data and (2) identify the data that will help you achieve those goals, then you are on the right track to answering "What Data Should My Nonprofit Collect?"

 

 

 

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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