Data Matters: Let’s Look Within To Find Our Exemplars

The following blog post was originally produced for the NGen Fellows blog on the Independent Sector website.

When it comes to leadership, data matters. I’d argue you can’t be effective as a leader without understanding how to tap into data to gauge the effectiveness of your work and then drive (and inspire) improvement. So I am thrilled to see that the current class of NGen Fellows has decided to focus its project on “using data for leading the nonprofit sector.”

My hope, in reading the NGen Fellows blog post explaining this choice, is that we remember that this push is not new – that we have lots of examples to learn from. The Fellows write of the imperative “to keep up with our counterparts in the private and public sectors.” But even if the assumption is correct that the nonprofit sector lags in this area, and I am not sure it is (especially when you factor in how much more complex and difficult it is to obtain performance data in our sector), I don’t think comparing ourselves to other sectors is the most effective way to motivate change.

If what we want to do is inspire nonprofit leaders to use data more effectively to improve the impact of their work, we should look within the sector for examples. In that vein, I was pleased to see that one of the project goals is to “showcase organizations effectively utilizing data to achieve more efficient operations and successful outcomes.” This should not be hard because, while we can all agree that there should be more, the fact is, examples abound.

  • Why not look to the example of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a nonprofit whose savvy use and analysis of data has helped dramatically improve patient outcomes?
  • Why don’t we study organizations like Nurse-Family Partnership, which has developed powerful data on its efficacy?
  • Or how about the work of the Stuart Foundation and its grantees to improve life outcomes for foster kids? (Disclosure: Stuart is both a grant funder and client of the organization I lead.)

Wharton professor Peter Fader, who is Co-Director of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative, has observed that nonprofits often excel in using “their data to better understand their ‘customer base,’” arguing that, “in this area, big companies with lots of resources really can learn from their cash-strapped non-profit cousins.”

I think we do ourselves a disservice by painting with too broad a brush when it comes to the state of the sector in its approach to data. We need to understand both the historical and present-day examples from within the sector of rigorous, data-driven, effective nonprofit work. And, as a former strategy consultant to major companies, I can tell you there’s a lot of shoddy use, and non-use, of data in the corporate world. (Financial crisis, anyone?)

At the (nonprofit) Center for Effective Philanthropy, where I serve as president, we have developed tools to allow foundations to get confidential, comparative feedback about their performance from grant recipients and others. (Our motto is “Better Data. Better Decisions. Better Philanthropy.”) People widely assume that we used customer-satisfaction surveys in the corporate world as our model, but we did not; our model, in fact, was the comparative reports based on student survey results put together for decades by a consortium of nonprofit colleges and universities.

If we are to inspire more leaders in the nonprofit sector to embrace the tough work of being data-driven leaders, we will be much better off looking for models within the sector. My hope is that the NGen Fellows will keep that in mind as they pursue this important project.


Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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