Can Data Bring Foundations and Nonprofits Closer?

April 25, 2017 Steve MacLaughlin

In recent years, we’ve seen a major uptick in organizations across the social good sector looking at data – and how to use data – in new ways. In fact, when I was conducting research for my book Data Driven Nonprofits, I spoke with data champions in a wide variety of organizations across numerous focus areas. Data champions —whether inside a nonprofit organization or a foundation—know that data on its own doesn’t accelerate impact on its own. It’s when you take that data and use it to guide stronger strategies and foster collaboration that data becomes a driver for change.

Without question, our ability to track and measure outcomes and the impact of social good initiatives has expanded considerably over the past several years. One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the nonprofit sector is that we now have the technology to power this type of outcomes-centered measurement and program tracking.

This helps provide a platform for foundations and nonprofits to partner more closely on achieving intended outcomes together. With a platform for shared understanding of outcomes definition, how to measure progress, and a standardized language for giving, foundations and nonprofits are able to collaborate for change more effectively.

With a deep focus on results and sophisticated technology built to match, we see foundations growing their outcomes measurement maturity and shifting how they evaluate grants, from applications through reporting. There are more data points than ever before, and more ability for change-makers on any side of the program relationship to use them to make intelligent decisions about advancing initiatives in a collaborative, transparent way.

The shift we see in the way foundations are approaching grant application review, program data tracking, and program effectiveness is driving a change in how foundations are partnering with their grantees, where data and technology serve as a common ground to come together. These foundations and nonprofits are collaborating on a deeper level, structuring initiatives based on a common language of giving with an articulation of an action plan for achieving intended impacts.

Take the Obici Healthcare Foundation, an independent foundation focused on improving the health status of the people living in Virginia. The foundation responds to the medical needs of people who are indigent and uninsured and by supporting programs which have the primary purpose of preventing illness and disease. Obici Healthcare runs several initiatives designed to improve long-term health, including co-hosting free dental events in an area with a high rate of Type-2 diabetes and investing in a LEAP program to engage children in health-focused learning from a young age. Sustaining efforts like these doesn’t simply happen, which is why Obici Healthcare places high emphasis on working collaboratively with nonprofit partners across the community and encouraging everyone involved to elevate their ability to define, track, and make progress toward intended outcomes along the way.

Cathy Huband, grants manager at Obici Healthcare Foundation, said, “Our emphasis on data and continuous improvement enables us to keep our grantmaking process streamlined, and it gives us a foundation for incredible collaboration with our grantee partners. Focusing on outcomes definition and measurement has had an impact on everything we do at Obici Healthcare – and we believe this has helped our grantee partners to be even stronger as they approach their own work. With your intended outcomes front and center as you approach your work, you can push yourself, your organization and your partners to keep getting better every time with every program and every opportunity to make a difference.”

This is just one story of how data is at the center of fueling greater collaboration and outcomes. We’re seeing more and more organizations embracing data to drive strategy, collaboration, and impact storytelling. Deeper partnerships based on a shared understanding of how to leverage data to measure success enables foundations and nonprofits to drive change and tell stronger impact stories about their shared efforts. After all, the best data scientists are also great storytellers.

With this theme in mind, I’m moderating a session today at the Council on Foundations’ annual conference, Leading Together, where we’ll be tackling how foundations can leverage data to inform their strategies. If you’re in Dallas for the event, be sure to stop by.

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