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From 'Tribal' Knowledge to Technology: How Data Can Supercharge Your Nonprofit

April 24, 2019

Nonprofit_working_spaceTeam members at nonprofit organizations often feel a special kinship. Everyone strives to deliver on the organization's mission and is passionate about the same thing — having a positive impact on people's lives and within their communities. In effect, the nonprofit you work for is like a "tribe" — a group of people bound together by a shared interest, a shared vocabulary, and specialized knowledge.

Many nonprofits rely on their staff's collective experience and "tribal knowledge" — undocumented information that is unavailable to those outside the organization — to keep things running smoothly. While both are invaluable, operating in such a manner tends to create gaps in actionable information. And it leaves the organization vulnerable to losing critical institutional knowledge when long-serving staff members retire or move on professionally. 

What's a nonprofit to do? 

Simply put, nonprofits need to be more efficient when capturing organizational knowledge, leveraging the experience of staff, and translating staff insights into action. How? 

With software and historical data. 

Filling Critical Gaps With Data

Better support for participants. Historical data can provide nonprofits with valuable insights that intuition or gut instinct alone cannot. Let's say a fifth-grade student in an afterschool tutoring program is scoring at a seventh-grade reading level. Intuition tells you the student needs to be challenged. But data can show you:

  • which strategies have worked for similar students in the past
  • which K-12 accelerated reading programs best fit the needs of the student
  • how to quantitatively measure the success of your strategies 

Data gathered from digital tools can help the organization answer the above questions and create a program for the student that both stimulates and challenges her. And just as importantly, it will enable the organization to provide customized support for all participants in the program — all the time.

Putting hours back in the day. You probably work in the social sector because you have a keen desire to help others. Spending hours each day on administrative work (like data entry) can undermine that desire, while wasting valuable time on tasks that could (and should) be automated only adds to your stress. You may feel pressure to "make up" that time, but rushing through routine data-entry tasks can lead to mistakes that might have been avoided if you weren't so pressed for time. 

The good news? Software can help put hours back in your day and alleviate some of the work-related stress you may feel. Many digital solutions allow you to automate back-office tasks such as participant intake, enrollment data entry, and prospect list management, enabling you to focus on what matters most — helping your constituents. 

More funding opportunities. Historical data helps you demonstrate your organization's impact with tangible, quantitative proof and also will help you answer two questions likely to lead to more funding opportunities: "What did we do?" and "How much did it matter?" 

Consider the difference between the following statements:

"Our nonprofit helped several people secure housing last year."

"Our nonprofit helped thirty homeless individuals secure housing last year. And of those thirty individuals, half of them secured jobs that they still have more than six months later."

The first statement leaves a lot to the imagination, while the second gives funders the kind of data-driven proof they are looking for when considering whether they should support an organization or cause. In short, organizations that can demonstrate their impact quantitatively have a better chance at grabbing a funder's attention and securing a grant. 

A Business-Minded Approach to Software

Helping your organization secure additional funding is just one way digital technology can help maximize its impact. To truly transition from a reliance on insider knowledge to leveraging the power of technology, however, organizations need to understand the various ways that software can be a resource for them, commit to the need for an upfront investment in new software, and approach the whole software question with an open mind.  

Identifying the right software and integrating it effectively not only will help your nonprofit become more data-driven, it will also empower your people and streamline your processes. In my experience, software can help foster innovation within an organization and among its partners, improve an organization's efficiency and effectiveness, and lead to a higher return on funders' support software — if you let it.  

Creating a Data-Driven Culture 

While many organizations are willing to "make do" with their current systems, that kind of approach is less than optimal and ultimately not sustainable. In contrast, creating a data-driven culture will enable your organization to seize new opportunities and scale its efforts. Most importantly, it will keep your staff on its toes and put your organization in a position to identify and respond to emerging trends. In 2019, creating a data-driven culture isn't just the prerogative of high-tech or deep-pocketed firms or industries. It's every organization's right and obligation. 

To ensure that your organization is taking steps to adopt a data-driven culture, a few things need to happen first:

Find your champions. Empower your team to recommend new software that will make a difference in your organization's culture and operations. Find those who are excited to get others onboard and help manage the transition to a new system.

Find the case management software that's right for your organization. Before you implement any new software, do your research. Be sure to choose something that will fit the needs of your organization — not just the software with the most features. 

Plan (and then plan some more). Once you've consulted with your team and identified the right solution, it's time to think about logistics. Thinking and planning ahead will enable you to prepare everyone for the transition and manage expectations.

It's more important than ever for nonprofits to capture and analyze their historical data with software. But moving forward and innovating doesn't mean you have to leave your tribal knowledge behind. It simply means you get to do more of what you love — serve your constituents more effectively and efficiently. 

John Manganaro_PhilanTopicJohn Manganaro is senior vice president of product management and data science at Social Solutions Global, a software company that provides case management solutions for nonprofit organizations. 

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