Got Data? 13 Strategic Ways Nonprofits Can Leverage Data To Optimize Operations

Nonprofits are well aware of the benefits of data. From analyzing communities for existing gaps to communicating regularly with stakeholders, data collection is an essential component of nonprofit strategy development. However, while data is key to driving change, knowing how to best utilize that insight is a skill that comes with both effort and experience.

When used properly, data has the potential to drive efficiency and increase the effectiveness of a nonprofit’s operations. To help leaders learn more about how to effectively leverage data, 13 Forbes Nonprofit Council members share practical ways data can be applied within organizations to optimize operations.

1. Apply Insights To Inform Decision Making

If applied appropriately, quantitative decision making improves operational efficiencies and effectiveness by increasing revenue, decreasing expenses and improving productivity. Utilizing data helps nonprofits understand donor behavior, program performance and budget accuracy. Utilizing data also allows for wiser decision making for organizations that generally have very limited resources and unlimited needs to fill. – Jennifer Paquette, The JPaq Group

2. Enhance Current Processes And Procedures

While gathering data is common, using it is often not. Ensure that the information being gathered is valuable and that it not just can but is used to inform decisions for future programming, improve services or help with budget planning and forecasting. A lot of effort and time goes into gathering and reporting data. Put it to use! – Jaime Boldt, Globe Theatre

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3. Predict Trends In Operations

Data can be used as a predictor of peaks and valleys in operations. This can include what drives high and low productivity, or what variables contributed to the increase or decrease in call volume, as an example. Gathering data and analyzing it against other factors that contribute to achievement of critical success factors provides an important ingredient to shape answers to operational optimization. – Gwen Cooper, Accessia Health

4. Provide Transparency To Stakeholders

The first step in using data is to consider why this data is important and why measuring it makes sense. Often the data can help contour what you are offering as a nonprofit and bring forth a message that not only resonates with your members, but also with your staff. Analytics can bring transparency to murky questions or solidify tactical concerns regarding strategy and goals. – Dr. Sherry McAllister, Foundation for Chiropractic Progress

5. Create Feedback Loops

A feedback loop is necessary for any nonprofit that wants to use data-based decision making. We must continually use data to determine what is working, what isn’t working and why. We should also be evaluating our data on a regular basis to prioritize our work. With so many demands on resources, nonprofits need to do everything possible to ensure maximum impact. Data is the only way to accomplish that. – Patrick Riccards, Driving Force Institute

6. Provide Needed Support For Staff

Whether you’re reporting progress back to donors or charting a strategic path forward, capturing comprehensive and accurate data is paramount. Impress upon new hires and veteran staff alike that robust data limits redundancies and reflects the empirical value of their hard work. Offer training or any other necessary support until it’s an ingrained cornerstone of your organization’s culture. – Jose Luis Castro, Vital Strategies

7. Strengthen Goal-Setting

Include data-driven goals in performance reviews. This ensures that employees are being rewarded and challenged by the quantifiable goals of the organization and actively driving success to the bottom line. – Kimberly Lewis, Goodwill Industries of East Texas, Inc.

8. Identify Resource Gaps

At InnovateEDU, data is at the core of what we do, as it helps us understand the impact and work to meet our mission. One way we do this is by making sure what we produce is relevant and timely. We review web analytics monthly to see not only what people are downloading, but also where people are searching and not finding results. This helps us understand gaps that we can fill with new resources. – Erin Mote, InnovateEDU

9. Uncover New, Adjacent Areas To Explore

Because I am a head of innovation, my focus is on new business models. By analyzing the data on what we already do, we’re able to uncover new areas to explore and consider adjacencies. We think about what it would look like to leverage our existing strengths in a new area or to serve a new group of people. – Jonathan Prosser, Compassion UK

10. Tell Balanced Stories

Embrace mixed methods, using both quantitative and qualitative data. There can be a tendency with storytelling to either rely too heavily on quantitative data or to simply rely on stories with no quantitative data. Both are powerful tools and require balance. As the saying goes, “No stories without data, no data without stories.” – Jono Anzalone, The Climate Initiative

11. Provide Further Context

It is not enough to just collect data, as it is the interpretation of the data that drives informed decisions. Creating dashboards to give the data context has been helpful to our team and our board in driving the creation of efficiencies and effective processes around our work. – Deidre Lind, Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles

12. Prioritize Donor Relationships

Most nonprofit organizations rely heavily on donor investment to strengthen and sustain their work. However, it’s often hard to identify or prioritize potential donor relationships. That’s where data analytics, AI and other forms of business intelligence provide significant lift in focusing the nonprofit’s philanthropy programs to secure more dollars and improve the return on investment. – Betsy Chapin Taylor, FAHP, Accordant

13. Gain A Deeper Understanding Of Key Stakeholders

Data will provide a better understanding of what’s important to your key stakeholders, including donors, volunteers, partners, funders and those you serve. The data will enable you to examine and assess operations with the interests and priorities of your stakeholders in mind, allowing you to make adjustments that will strengthen their engagement and support. This will ultimately increase your success. – Victoria Burkhart, The More Than Giving Company

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