Mar 30 2017
Data Analytics

Nonprofits Can Leverage Big Data to Further Their Missions

What should nonprofit organizations be thinking about as they adopt new technologies, and Big Data in particular?

Nonprofit organizations often must deal with limited resources. To make the most of those, they need to use the data at their disposal as effectively as possible.

At least that’s one piece of advice Jen Bokoff would give to nonprofits. Bokoff is director of knowledge services for Foundation Center, which uses data on a regular basis to help nonprofits around the world remain competitive with their technology.

As TechRepublic notes:

“Founded in 1956, the New York City-based organization is a ‘knowledge bank’ for the nonprofit sector, and boasts the largest database of global grantmakers and funding activity. As part of their mission to advance data-driven innovation, Foundation Center facilitates research, training, and technology education programs at more than 450 hubs located at libraries and universities across the country.”

Nonprofits can use Big Data and analytics to deliver on their missions. However, nonprofit leaders and IT managers need to be aware of the data they have and how best to use it.

“Nonprofit organizations [are sometimes] staffed by people not naturally inclined to seek out data,” Bokoff told TechRepublic. “It’s a bit of a foreign idea and [many nonprofits] are not necessarily coming at data in a systematic way. We believe [data] is core to solving problems in our world, but it's not the intuitive solution to most of the actors in this field.”

Making the Most of Nonprofit Technology

Foundation Center encourages nonprofits to make data-driven decisions, because doing so fosters transparency and helps organizations think clearly about what they are funding and how they are learning from the data they collect.

“With often limited resources, nonprofits need to maximize and double down on efforts that are likely to succeed,” Bokoff says. “With fundraising in particular, a strategic review of field-wide data significantly helps organizations target proposals to well-aligned, appropriate foundations.” Although every nonprofit has different needs and resources, Bokoff argues that all nonprofits “need to recognize why they exist and how essential technology is to helping their mission and constituency.”

“In many cases, making the right technology investments can help operations immensely, but in other cases, it may actually create challenges or be overkill,” she says. “Really thinking about what the goal of new technology would be can help inform key questions, like: Do we build it or do we buy it? Are we better off partnering with another organization? How much do we need to worry about privacy and hacking? What integrations would we need to make new technology make sense in our current arrangement?”

Nonprofits that lean heavily on IT must “hire and develop staff skills to properly implement and maintain that technology. Without the right set of ethics and skills in house, it’s very hard to make a nonprofit technology effort work.”

Leveraging Big Data in the Nonprofit World

How can nonprofits make the best use of Big Data and analytics in particular?

Bokoff notes that nonprofits are only going to be awash in more data as time goes on, and that it will be generated in different forms. “This means that organizations need to have skills for data analysis, such as programming, visualization, and statistics, in house and not just externally,” she says. “With this, organizations also need to develop a sensibility about how data connect and influence, and how to leverage this understanding towards mission.”

Everything that can be digitized is potentially data that nonprofits can use, and they can then mine that data via analytics to “learn about their audiences, their approaches, and the context of the world around them,” she says.

Indeed, as Fast Company detailed last month, a nonprofit called the Freshwater Trust, which works on river conservation, used Big Data to help figure out the best way to preserve a river in Oregon.

A sewage treatment plant in Medford, Ore., was dumping warm water into the nearby Rogue River, which is a major problem for cold-blooded fish like local salmon and steelhead. The plant thought of constructing an expensive cooling tower to mitigate the problem, but in the end worked with local farmers and landowners to plant trees along the river, “which proved an equally effective cooling mechanism as traditional infrastructure,” Fast Company reports. The issue was figuring out where exactly the trees should be planted to have the most impact.

According to Fast Company, the Freshwater Trust created a tool called BasinScout, which “pulls together Big Data about the vegetation next to waterways, the amount of sunlight and soil type, the slope of land, crops grown nearby, water usage on farms, and other factors. Then it creates maps for water restoration projects, color-coding areas based on the priority. The highest-priority areas can have the most impact at the lowest cost.”

Bokoff says nonprofits should continue to leverage Big Data to drive forward in their missions. “The fact that we still have ‘longstanding problems’ — those very societal challenges that nonprofit organizations are set up to address — means we still have more work to do, and Big Data might well be a lever to creating change,” she says. “With shifting governments and policies worldwide, the nonprofit sector often must recalibrate to address gaps. Data illuminates and informs the roles that nonprofits could be positioned to play.”


Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT