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  • Ryan Brooks

What Data Should Nonprofits Collect

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

If you are new to a data-oriented role at a nonprofit or your nonprofit is “getting serious” about data for the first time, then the question of “what data should my nonprofit collect?” will come up. This is true if you are cleaning up riverbeds, helping youth succeed in school, or supporting families that are homeless.

Nonprofits should consider tracking five types of data:

  1. Outputs

  2. Demographics

  3. Outcomes

  4. Success Stories

  5. Funding

In this post, we'll explore these five types of data to help you determine the data your nonprofit should collect.

Answer these 5 questions to figure out the data your nonprofit should collect:

  1. What does your nonprofit do (outputs)?

  2. Who does your nonprofit serve (demographics)?

  3. What does your nonprofit achieve (outcomes)?

  4. What are your success stories?

  5. Who is Paying?

I know. I know. It looks like a lot. Don't leave just yet. You don't have to do it all on day 1 or even day 1,000.

Well, you might have to do it all by day 1,000, but that probably means you're doing a lot of things right!

What does your nonprofit do?

The services you provide, your outputs, are an good starting place, even if you don't track everything when you get started. The things we do are often so easy to identify and track, so it makes sense to focus on this first.

But, you can't just say we do clothing and food and job stuff. You have to make some decisions first. You probably already know what you do, but you have to decide how you want to track it.

How to pick the outputs to track

This is the $64,000 question. Nonprofits can't track everything, so how do we select the data we track? Here are a few tips to guide your thinking:

1. Make a list of activities where you focus time and resources

Where do you and your team spend significant time and resources? Conducting street outreach? Helping people find jobs? Providing food and clothing?

If you spend a lot of time or money on a service, then you'll want to track that work.

Your first step is to make a list of services where you spend meaningful time or resources.

Example List of Services

  • Food Pantry

  • Hot/Prepared Meals

  • Financial support for unpaid utilities

  • Financial support for unpaid rent

  • Case Management for job seekers

  • Case Management for housing needs

  • Assistance with benefits application (e.g. housing vouchers, SNAP, Medicaid, etc)

2. Identify options to track those services

With a list in hand, I now have to figure out how to measure everything on it.

OK. How am I supposed to do that?

Here ae 3 things to consider:

  • Determine the unit of measurement that's meaningful to you

    • Do you care about meals served, pounds of food, bags of food, the dollar value of food, or something else?

    • Do you care about the amount of time you spent doing case management, the number of sessions, or something else?

  • What do your funders require? (we discuss "who is paying?" later)

    • If your funders need you to track pantry meals, then track means in addition to what is meaningful to you. You can still track pounds of food while you satisfy your funders' requirements.

  • What do your peers track?

    • Look around and see what your peers track for similar services. How do they talk about it on their websites or annual reports?

    • Make sure you circle back to what's meaningful to you and what your funders require.

TIP: If you have a website (or just a social media page), then you need to track everything you describe on your website. If you can't put numbers behind your website's claim that you offer tutoring or counseling, then it could put you in an awkward position.

3.Make decisions and start counting

It doesn't have to be perfect. Just make some logical decisions and get started. You might transition from tracking pounds of food to meals, or you might start off by tracking both.

The point is to get in the habit of tracking your outputs, and you can refine the measures as you go.

Who does your nonprofit serve?

If your nonprofit works with people, then you need to track people. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need a lengthy profile on each person receiving services, but you’ll want enough to distinguish them.

Why? Lots of reasons.

First, people often want to know the size of your nonprofit and the scope of your impact. One of the best ways to show that is to say “we served 50 families last year with a total of 170 children” or “we tutored 500 students last year”.

To get that right, you need to track some information about the people you serve.

Second, it's powerful to talk about services and people together. For example, "We provided 500 job coaching sessions to 150 single dads." This single statement is more complete and more satisfying than "We provided 500 job coaching sessions".

Third, even if your nonprofit is relatively small, there will be a point where you don't know everybody or everything you've done with them. Having a short profile on each participant helps you deliver services more effectively and efficiently.

What Participant Data Do You Need?

The simplest data you can track about the people you serve is:

  1. Name

  2. At least one piece of identifying data

This is the best way to distinguish between the 3 people you have named JD Jones.

Wait, are those the same person?

Hmm...not sure... does this JD like to wear green?


What’s identifying data?

Birthdate is good, so are address, phone number, and/or email. A combination of these is even better.

Of course, the more identifying data you collect, the more careful you need to be to protect it. I'm not even talking about HIPAA or regulatory compliance. I'm just talking about doing the right thing for your people.

Tracking Demographics

Moving beyond the absolute minimum data to track about the people you serve, you can add some demographic data. We’ve written about tracking demographics and analyzing demographic data in the past, so we won’t go into depth here.

In short, demographics are data about your participants, not about your work with them. Demographics are thins like race, gender, age, military experience, educational attainment, and lots more that help you understand your participants characteristics and background.

Here are a few reasons that it's worthwhile to track demographics:

  1. You want to understand the characteristics of the people you serve.

  2. You want to look for opportunities to serve different groups better.

  3. There's a grant opportunity focused on single dads who are not native English speakers, and your grant proposal needs to say 'we work with over 100 single dads a year, and 50 of them are not native English speakers' in your grant proposal.

What demographics should you track?

Demographics can feel like looking out into the ocean. The options are boundless. Here are a few ideas to help you focus on what's important.

1. Track what’s meaningful to you.

Basically, focus on things that are aligned with your mission, your priorities, and (if you have one) your strategic plan.

If your board of directors wants to prioritize young parents, then you’ll want to track birthdate (to calculate age) and some information about their dependents. You might analyze this data to determine whether you are serving more or fewer young parents over time.

2. Track what your funders require.

Is there one right way to track the race and ethnicity of your participants? Probably not. But your funder might have a preference, and it might be slightly different from yours. If your funder asks you to track demographics in a certain way, then try to do it.

3. Find out what other similar organizations track

Are they tracking income? If so, how are they tracking it? Hourly wages, monthly earnings, estimated annual earnings, whatever the participant tells them the first time they meet, the average of the last 3 paystubs, etc?

4. Last, track just a few things that might be insightful along the way.

You can get a little creative here. Maybe you want to learn if you serve a lot of military veterans, people with pets, people with mobility challenges, or something else.

Don’t go overboard. Your team won’t appreciate submitting data for a bunch of “just in case it’s useful” questions and your participants won’t want to divulge every detail of their lives unless they get something in return.

What Does Your Nonprofit Achieve?

Now lots of people will claim that this needs to be at the top of the list of things to track. I'll happily, um..., ignore that debate. What I can tell you is that lots of amazing organizations don't track achievements, they only track the things they do, and lots of great organizations think that outcomes are what matter the most.

How to pick the outcomes to track

This process resembles what you'll do to pick outputs, so we won't repeat everything.

Here's the difference, outcomes are the things you achieve, not the things you do. You will almost certainly have fewer outcomes than outputs because most outcomes are the culmination of lots of time and resources.

You provided 500 coaching sessions (outputs) to help 50 single dads (people) get jobs. But only some of those 150 dads will actually get jobs (outcomes). The challenge is determining what you are actually going to track as a success.

  • Any job obtained

  • Full-time jobs obtained

  • Full-time jobs obtained that pay $20 per hours and offer benefits

  • Full-time jobs obtained in a specific industry

1. Identify possible measures of success

Look at each service you listed. Not every service that you provide has outcomes that you need to track because the service is the point, but many will.

Remember to do the following:

  • Identify measures that are consistent with the program's stated goals or your nonprofit's mission/vision/purpose

    • Is it any job, "Living Wage" jobs, Jobs with benefits, or something else

  • What do your funders require?

    • If the funder only cares about full-time jobs that pay more than $25/hour, then that needs to be on the board.

  • What do your peers track?

    • Do they track changes in hourly wages, jobs obtained, total additional income generated in a year, or something else?

2. Focus on success measures that you can track in the short- and medium-term

When picking outcomes, you need to think about the amount of work required to track them. It's difficult and expensive to track outcomes that occur in the very distant future, so it's best to focus on outcomes that are closer to "now".

Example 1:

Your organization might want to help families be stably housed forever, but you can't reasonably track that. You've just signed yourself up for unlimited follow-ups that get harder and harder to complete as time passes.

On the other hand, you can track that participants are stably housed and have a balanced budget when they exit your program or maybe 6-12 months after they exit.

Example 2

Your organization might want to help kindergarteners from low-income neighborhoods to graduate from college, but most organizations can't track that. And, the payoff is more than a decade away, so it's hard to claim credit for the results.

You can track that the kindergarteners in your program are reading and writing at grade level when they finish kindergarten, they are doing better than similarly situated peers, and that's associated with better academic outcomes in the long run.

In sum, track outcomes that are either "now" or "soon". You'll have a much easier time collecting data and a much stronger claim that your work is the reason good things are happening.

Success Stories

Success stories aren’t exactly “data” and you don’t really “track” them, but you need to “keep track” of them somehow.

Success stories are built from facts and are then carefully crafted into something that will make your audience have an emotional reaction. Stories make some donors more apt to open their checkbooks (or smartphones I suppose) at your annual luncheon, black tie gala, or meeting with an individual donor.

You might think that success stories are unforgettable. “We don’t need to track those.”

Some stories are unforgettable. But it's easier for you (or you executive director or board president) to share one or more well-developed stories to a friend, donor, or a crowd than it is to recall a few good ones on the fly.

Rather than relying on memory, write them down, build impactful stories, and have a bunch of them in your “Success Stories” folder.

Questions to ask about Success Stories

  1. What kinds of stories do we want to tell?

    1. Overcoming obstacles

    2. The most remarkable successes or something more typical

  2. How do we want people to respond?

    1. To donate to our a program

    2. To advocate for our cause

If you're interested in learning more about telling stories, Stories that Stick by Kindra Hall is a great starting place. Knowing how to construct a good story will help you figure out the data you need to gather.

Who is Paying?

Yuck...and yep. Let's eat this frog.

The bigger your nonprofit gets, the more prominent this becomes.

If your nonprofit runs on $100K in private donations and small fundraisers, then “who is paying?” probably doesn’t matter.

If you get any restricted funding (i.e. money that is provided to pay for a specific position, program, service, or population such as single dads with infants), or if you are getting any grant funding, then you have to care about who is paying.

That means, you have to track who is paying for the things you do and achieve.

To a large extent, this is a bookkeeping exercise – which is well outside of our expertise. But, it's also a program-focused activity because you might need address 2 issues with that data:

  1. Did the restricted funding go to what it was supposed to go to?

  2. What did the funder get out of that funding?

Ignoring your bookkeeper for a moment...

Wait, never ignore your bookkeeper. They are awesome! Give them a gift-card to a coffee shop for some "me time" so you can focus on what you need to do from the program tracking side.

First, you might need to flag or designate certain (1) participants, (2) staff members, (3) services, or (4) time spent as “Paid for by the ABC Foundation Grant”

For example, if you receive a grant to pay for job training services, then you have different ways of tracking who pays, including:

  1. A staff member who is fully dedicated to job training and all of their salary, benefits, and other costs can be applied to that grant (up to the grant amount)

  2. A staff member who spends only a portion of their time to job training, and that staff member probably needs to track how much time they spend on job training

  3. Participants who are **only using your job training services, so any staff time designated to that participant can be charged to the grant.

  4. And lots more..

Does this feel complicated? eyes glazed over writing about it.

Nonprofit fundraising and financial management can be a complicated dance of who pays, what can it pay for (and NOT pay for), and filling in gaps with unrestricted dollars.

Questions to ask about who pays

  1. What are the restrictions placed on the funding? What kinds of outputs, outcomes, or participants is it restricted to?

  2. How will I identify (or flag or mark) the correct outputs, outcomes, or participants for each funder?

  3. How will I track the outputs, outcomes, participants, staff time, and other expenses (e.g. financial assistance) that can be "charged" to these restricted dollars?

So, What Data Should Nonprofit Track

Well, lots of stuff.

But, if you're just getting started, I'd encourage you to start at the top of this post and work your way down as you find time. Maybe commit to working on outputs this month and moving on to the next item (people) next month.

Not everything will apply to you today, but you can build your skills and expertise over time. You gradually add new elements and refine as you go.

Learn More About Nonprofit Data Management

This post is part of our nonprofit data bootcamp series. Check out the complete list of nonprofit data bootcamp topics with links to other published posts.

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

Founder, CountBubble, LLC

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