You don’t need to work in business or marketing to appreciate just how much real-time data is changing our lives. For example, the rise of social media—a new industry that’s grown out billions of users all over the world sharing many of the most personal aspects of their lives—has opened the door to highly-personalized advertising.
Yet, for various reasons, the nonprofit sector has not embraced the technology and tools that are used to capture and use data. Demand, however, is growing for social programs to produce real outcomes. In order to close that gap, nonprofits will need to begin adopting more of the tactics that are commonplace in the for-profit world, including, namely, collecting real-time data and developing evidence-based agendas around it.
These are a few of the most prominent barriers that will need to be scaled in order for that to happen.
Lack of expertise
The research and development process can be a daunting prospect for an organization that lacks the ability to accurately translate the data. But it’s only because it can be bogged down by a lot of extraneous information and technical jargon. It is possible to simplify the process—in the early going, at least—by asking some basic questions: Who are our programs intended to help? And, how do we know they’re working?
Some degree of failure is to be expected because the sources of the concerns that nonprofits exist to help resolve aren’t always clear, or the concern is constantly evolving. But most nonprofits aren’t organized in a way that allows for much agility with their programming. Fundraising is hard enough. If a nonprofit doesn’t deliver on a desired effect, the funding will likely dry up entirely.
But the for-profit sector is full of experimentation, because it’s there that a better understanding develops—and innovation occurs. In order for nonprofits to have the same breathing room, more flexible funding is necessary.
Slow evidence building
Another part to that is being able to adjust programming as needs change, because they will. How pedestrian does a first-generation iPhone look today? That’s because it changed the landscape and allowed us to do more than we ever thought was possible on a handheld device. But today, all those functions are commonplace.
Similarly, collecting data to improve outcomes needs to be a continuous process. If you ask a nonprofit what metrics they’re using to measure their effectiveness, you shouldn’t get the same answer a year or two from now. Too often, however, nonprofits are relying on a sporadic and expensive approach to building evidence that isn’t aligned with their day-to-day needs.
The majority of nonprofits are not likely to look themselves in the figurative mirror and ask the hard questions because, again, answering them would mean overhauling a deeply ingrained infrastructure. Such a culture change would need to begin from the outside, with curious donors who want to know more about how an organization is following through on its mission. The greater the level of engagement (read: scrutiny), the more apparent the need for change will become.