5 Steps to Putting Data to Work

By Katie Grills

I got lucky at YNPNdc’s fantastic 10th Anniversary Celebration. I won free registration to the Spring Conference, and I never win anything! The best takeaway, though, was from keynote speaker Mark Hanis’ speech about the absolute necessity of using data as a means to further a cause.

Mark Hanis co-founded the Organ Alliance, an organization that applies new technologies and ideas to facilitate the organ donation process. Between mobilizing ordinary citizens to end genocide through the United to End Genocide movement to his recent year as a White House Fellow, Mark developed a deep understanding of the power that collected data can serve when applied in advocacy work.

As young nonprofit professionals, we have a responsibility to learn about and apply the best tools available to further the cause we’re championing. There is data everywhere to be collected, analyzed, and put to use to improve outcomes at nonprofits of all shapes, sizes, and funding levels.

Here are five steps to start collecting and using data at any scale.

  1. Assess what data is already being collected at your organization. Your programming or administrative offices are almost certainly collecting numbers and narratives that can be analyzed. From the number of clicks through an e-newsletter to the amount each donor gives yearly, your working world is ripe for the picking. Once you’re familiar with how and where the information is stored, poke around to see what exists.
  2. Manage your blind spots. After familiarizing yourself with current data, make a data collection wish list based on what you didn’t find. What if you knew how many calls your program staff got from parents each month? What if you knew how your volunteers found out about opportunities? Make a plan for how you want to begin collecting and storing missing information.
  3. Develop a plan. Once you know your organization’s data landscape, develop a plan to collect any data you might be missing to improve a project. Set a timeline to assess the data you currently have for any insight into challenges or success to tackle or grow in the coming months. Be sure to include a structured, time-efficient method for collecting and analyzing your new treasure.
  4. Apply the plan and keep collecting more data. When you are caught in the weeds of reaching long-term goals, it can be easy to lose sight of something that feels as trivial as writing down numbers and narratives. If your program is successful, though, this data could be the lifeblood of continued funding. Taking an extra 30 minutes a week to record data could really pay off!
  5. Assess your skills and experience. Analyzing data can put some nonprofit professionals outside their comfort zone, while others excel at toiling over spreadsheets and databases. During the process of reviewing data, take note of tasks that are difficult and rewarding to you, and jot down a note or two about useful skills to develop.


Katie Grills recently moved to Washington, DC from Atlanta, GA, where she was Marketing Communications Manager at Emcien Corp. and a volunteer feature writer forTEDxPeachtree. Before a year in Atlanta, she served as an AmeriCorps member for two years in Austin, TX. She is looking forward to jumping back into the nonprofit world after a brief and informative departure into the world of high tech startups.

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