9 ways nonprofit board members can get smart about data

Innovative nonprofits are learning how to be data-driven at all levels of their organization, from frontline workers to managers, executives, and board members. 

There’s a reason for this: today’s funders are asking for more data and transparency. This requires better data collection and moving past the outdated model of isolating data responsibilities within one small team. 

Everyone in the organization has an important role to play within the data ecosystem. Even the board.

In this blog post, we’ll cover nine ways that board members can help prioritize data and begin to transform their organization.

1. Learn why data is important for nonprofits and their board members.

Board members need good data to help nonprofits make decisions.
The world is full of data. But *good* data helps you understand what actions to take next.

The world is full of data. Sometimes it feels like we’re drowning in it. But it shouldn’t be mysterious. You shouldn’t need a data scientist to make your data useful. However, improving your data costs money and takes time. 

Like any investment, you need to be strategic. If you’re not clear about how data works within nonprofit organizations, then it will be a lot harder to implement best practices.

Here are just a few reasons why data is so important for nonprofit organizations:

  • Data helps funders gauge the impact of their money. Today’s funders need data on every program and service they support. Nonprofits often report dozens of metrics to their funders regularly. This is a lot of work and can be difficult to manage.
  • Data helps nonprofits determine the impact of their work. Organizations have to get better at measuring their objectives and using that information to evaluate their programming. It’s not easy to sift through all of the data collected by a nonprofit to find the best, most useful, most accurate metrics.
  • Data helps nonprofits act on what they learn. This information helps them make informed decisions and continuously improve.
  • Data helps nonprofits better understand the communities they serve. The needs of communities can change quickly, and a good data operation will help everyone understand those changes — from frontline social workers to board members.
  • Good data provides the backbone of an argument for social change. It helps nonprofits advocate for policy changes at all levels of government, and it provides credibility and gravity to community assessments.
  • Data helps organizations better understand employees and improve operations. 

The list goes on. 

2. Learn about data and data practices at your organization.

It’s not hard to learn about data and data practices.

It starts with asking questions. What data do we collect? What systems manage the data? Why are we collecting this information? What could we improve? 

It’s important to get a full picture of the data environment you are working with so you can locate where to start. It might be helpful to interview different positions across your organization to learn more about how they work with data and understand the strengths and weaknesses.

If this is overwhelming, it might make sense to bring in a consultant to develop a data strategy and inventory for your organization.

3. Hire an executive director who cares about data.

An executive director who values data will support a strong data culture, champion data improvement projects, and hire more data people. Priority comes from the top. 

As a board member, one of the most important things you can do is hire the right executive director. Don’t waste the opportunity to make sure they value data. 

They don’t have to be a data wizard or, frankly, even consider themselves to be a data person at all. They just have to understand the importance of data in their work. And they need to support a strong data culture.

I think about two of our clients who best fit this description. One is an executive director of a large social service organization — one of the largest in Houston. The other is an executive director of a local community center with deep ties to the neighborhood.

We worked with both of these organizations on data literacy training projects for their staff, analyzing data and creating dashboards, and improving data operations. 

Both executive directors were champions of data. They made it very clear to everyone at their organization that they valued data and wanted their staff to do the same. Through this message, both leaders gave their organizations permission to spend more time improving their data and data practices.

4. Hold leadership accountable to improve data practices.

After hiring an executive director who values data, now, part of your job as a board member is to hold leadership accountable.  Steer away from micromanagement and focus on providing support by talking through key areas of struggle or growth. 

Ask your executives to spend some time explaining what their data practices look like. How many spreadsheets or databases does the organization use? Are there documented procedures for storing and managing data? Can those procedures be improved? 

Ask about data quality. Do the spreadsheets and databases report data that reflects what they know to be true or do they look at the numbers and think this doesn’t make any sense at all? 

Ask about better reporting. Are you getting all of your questions answered in board reports, or does the staff need to pull something fresh for you every time? Are you able to connect the numbers they’re providing with the mission of the organization?

Sure, it’s important to ask about program performance. But you can take it to the next level by asking how they manage all of the data that go into the metrics.

5. Hire staff who care about data.

Once you’ve got the first data person in the door, keep building the culture. Board members can support nonprofits by hiring data people into other leadership roles, management, and frontline staff. 

This requires naming what you are looking for. As a board member, you probably won’t participate in staff interviews. But you can help them ask good questions to find people who understand data. 

For example, when interviewing a program manager or director, some of the following questions can be insightful:

  • How have you used data to improve programming?
  • How would you motivate your staff to complete everyday practices like data entry?
  • What metrics have you used to measure program performance in the past?
  • What are some successful data management practices you’ve used in the past?

All nonprofit professionals touch data, whether through data entry, pulling reports, applying for grants, or when completing thousands of other tasks. So it’s important to screen for data skills during your hiring process.

6. Train staff to care about data.

There’s probably already a team of people dedicated to your mission and fighting the good fight. If they aren’t confident with data yet, it’s important to provide them with the learning opportunities to build the skills needed to handle data with competency. 

This is where data training can be really helpful. You can increase the data literacy across your team by training your existing staff to better understand your data. After all, your staff understands the day-to-day work. Why shouldn’t they also understand how that work is reported and communicated?

We work with organizations through our Data Ambassadors training program to help nonprofit staff to improve data practices around collecting and managing data, identify clear metrics that measure impact, better understand how to interpret data so lessons can be applied faster, and much more. 

Look for data training opportunities or give us a call so we can help you level up the data skills across your team.

Recent graduates of the Data Ambassadors program.

7. Push for meaningful outcome metrics.

It is challenging to identify metrics that truly measure the objectives and impact of each of your programs. This is not a straightforward process. It will take time and critical thinking. But if you want your organization to be data informed, then as a board member you can hold your organization accountable to collect meaningful metrics that truly measure the objectives you are trying to achieve. 

For example, if you have a program that provides job skills training with the goal of helping people get jobs, then it’s not enough to just measure the number of people who enroll in your program. That data is helpful and will give you insight into other areas like outreach efforts, but it will not tell you anything about how effective you are at getting people jobs.

Instead, you want to measure an outcome like the percentage of people who went through your program and got a job. That number has meaning and it will tell you if you need to make changes to your program. 

An example data dashboard showing program outcomes that could be used by board members to measure progress.
An example data dashboard showing program outcomes.

8. Make room in your budget to improve systems and train staff.

As a board member, one of your responsibilities is to approve the annual budget. It costs money to train your staff and upgrade your systems. You can help advocate for better data and data systems by encouraging your organization to set aside funding in your annual budget to support your data strategy.

There is no one size fits all approach. A replacement IT system can be very expensive, while a short training session can be a discretionary expense. The goal is to figure out how to get started right away, even if it’s a baby step in the direction of data.

9. Increase the data power on your board.

Encourage other board members to expand their knowledge about data. If you have a lot of experience working with data, use that experience to help your fellow board members understand the importance of data and being a data-driven organization. 

If you don’t consider yourself to be a data person and this skill set is lacking on your board, then help recruit more board members who have data skills. Or bring in some outside experts to help educate your board. 

Need some data advice or training for your board or organization? Send me an email at carly@januaryadvisors.com or book a time directly on my calendar.

Carly Sessions

Carly is a social worker turned technologist who is passionate about using data to improve the social safety net.