Data for Social Good: A Beginners Guide for Nonprofits and Social Ventures

Data is gaining tremendous prominence in the business world. Companies are becoming highly data driven in every aspect of their business – from gaining new customers, providing better personalized services, cutting costs, to developing new products. With the visible benefits of increased profits and efficiency, companies are spending more resources than ever to understand, visualize and monetize data.

The positive outcomes for data driven businesses has got nonprofit thinkers and leaders excited to try and spark the same kind of excitement around data in the social sector. Currently, there is a talk around how big data can fuel social good, my goal with this article is to help nonprofits and social startups understand how they can apply data thinking in their everyday work and hopefully demystify this trend.

Nonprofits Are About Small Data

First up, do not be daunted by all the talk around big data. The truth is that most social startups and nonprofits will never have to deal with big data. Big data refers to terabytes of data being generated every single day as a side effect of our activities on the web. Big Data requires large technology investments from storage, Hadoop clusters to engineering expertise before one can begin to process and derive valuable insights. Typically nonprofit data is not that large as to requiring big data technologies however it’s still important to learn to collect and manage data.  A good definition of small data is that which can be stored, processed and used on an everyday computer. Small data does not need big complex tools, like Hadoop clusters which are extensively used in the big data world.

Where Does Data Come From?

There are different types of data that a nonprofit generates on a daily basis that can be used in deriving key business insights. Web and social media data, donor and volunteer data, client/customer data. Being conscious and aware of the data you have and are generating is the first step to using data to grow your bottom line.

How to Manage and Mine Data?

There are many simple and free tools out there which nonprofits can use to manage and analyze their data so as to drive decisions. I’ll like to highlight few key ones here.

Salesforce CRM – Great for managing all your people interactions data be it your donors, volunteers, customers, partners, sales people etc. With Salesforce CRM you can track all your interactions, activities and transactions in one place, which can be accessed from any place and from any device. Salesforce Foundation has a very active CRM donation program to nonprofits and social startups. You can find more information about that on their website. The Salesforce CRM dashboard and report generation capabilities are extremely powerful, providing you real-time insights about things you would  like to track and act on for instance funds raised so far and their sources, top donors, top volunteers etc. It basically takes over your excel sheet, making it easy to store, share and gain insights.

Google Analytics – A free tool from Google which helps you monitor your website activity as it happens. Real-time insights into how visitors use your site, how they arrived on your site, where they are coming from, how you can keep them coming back and much more. This kind of data is very important to measure as it helps you understand what’s working and what’s not and what can be done better to gain and engage visitors. For instance knowing how people are discovering your website (Is Facebook, Google or some other site sending traffic to your site) and which part of the world they are coming from can help you be more strategic about all your promotional activities.

Email Analytics – Emails are a critical part of any campaign. Email campaign management solutions such as MailChimp or Vertical Response allows you to not only successfully send out a large number of emails but also allows you to be data driven by providing rich analytics such as click through rates, user engagement numbers etc. This data allows you to test various email formats and content in an analytical way so as to get the best results from your campaign. A great example of this is how the Obama campaign successfully tested various email subject lines and content to maximize donations. Most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from data driven fundraising e-mails.

Google Fusion Tables – Is an amazing visualization tool from Google. It helps you convert your data into images and stories that you could use to educate people about your cause and impact. It also helps you find related data sets that are made open on the web and to collaborate to present the big picture. Fusion Tables are being extensively used by journalist and in crisis response to tell compelling stories and presents a great opportunity for nonprofits to tell their stories backed by data. You can learn more about Fusion Tables here.

The above tools are really simple to use and something you could apply in your everyday work to be more data driven. If you need expertise, have large data sets and would like to draw some key insights or have a well defined data problem, you could approach Data Kind (formerly known as Data Without Borders). They conduct weekend data-dives and have access to data scientists who they could help place on a short-term basis in your organization.

Filed under: Featured


Deepa Chaudhary

I have extensively worked at grass-roots from working in the slums of Mumbai to being on the frontline of numerous disaster relief efforts. I'm passionate about social entrepreneurship and I love discovering and writing about new trends in the social good space.

1 Comment

  1. Judith Latham says

    I need most of this information, but it is very intimidating. I am not a nonprofit organization. I am not an organization! I don’t have a website about it.

    I have an idea. I want to preserve culinary history (every family has favorite and unique dishes passed down through generations) in a searchable database before they are lost. Can you make a lemon meringue pie without pre-cooking the filling? Grandma could. And it was the best! In my family I am the last one that remembers how to do it. And I would like people to be able to do it if they want to.

    So I will go to these sites and read these articles and hopefully find a way to make this happen. I feel it is one of those things that just needs to be done.

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