Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Big interest in big data

March 26, 2014, 9:02 a.m., Posted by Jonathan Sotsky

bigdata

Photo credit: Flickr user: maximillion.

The social sector is undergoing an important transformation when it comes to research and evaluation. Nonprofits have shifted from asking whether they should measure their work to how to most effectively assess impact. Coupled with the emergence of new approaches for collecting and analyzing data, there’s never been more interest and opportunity for nonprofits and foundations to adopt evidence-based practices in their work.

I recently discussed Knight Foundation’s experiences with new forms of research and data visualization during a webinar titled “Data-Driven Strategy in the Social Sector” hosted by Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). Jeffrey Bladt from Do Something and Sean Gourley of Quid, a data analytics firm Knight worked with recently, joined me in providing a small glimpse into how foundations and nonprofits can leverage data to increase their effectiveness and advance knowledge in their fields. Furthering the point that data is on the minds of social sector organizations, 3,000 people registered for the webinar, which set a record for an SSIR webinar.

We only had time to address a handful of question from the audience, so here are some additional thoughts related to the most common questions about research and data posed during the webinar and post-webinar survey (I’ll do my best to follow up individually with those who asked questions about the civic tech investment report featured during the webinar).

How can small nonprofits with limited resources pursue research, data analytics and visualization?

Nonprofits don’t need to contract with research firms or purchase expensive tools in order to meaningfully incorporate data into their work. Given the abundance of free or cheap resources available to nonprofits to address many data collection and reporting needs, it’s actually preferable to begin by adopting a low-cost solution to first validate the need to make significant investments in data infrastructure.

·      Data Collection: Repositories with an abundance of free resources for evaluating impact include the Foundation Center’s Tools and Resources for Measuring Social Impact and Innovation Network’s Point K Learning Center.

·      Network Analysis: This website provides an index of free network analysis tools.

·      Social Media Analysis: This blog post outlines five free social media monitoring tools and Beth Kanter’s blog is a consistent source of good information about measuring digital engagement.

·      Data Visualization: This blog post captures 20 free data visualization tools.

How can nonprofits embed data into their culture?

There’s no right answer to the questions “what should I measure?” or “how much should I measure?” These will vary by organization.  But I can say with 100 percent certainty that any effort to meaningfully use data to drive strategy cannot succeed without leadership buy-in. Knight is fortunate to have leadership and a board of trustees that prize measurement and consider it an essential part of strategy.

Many asked about mechanisms nonprofits can use to promote more data usage and learning, short of hiring a chief data officer or a full-time evaluation person. It’s become part of the culture at Knight, and here are some practices that have helped:

  • Ensuring all new grant projects define clear outcomes and an initial set of indicators for measuring success
  • Planning from the outset of assessments to create an external version of reports (and to share raw data openly when possible) to encourage broader learning in the field
  • Setting aside time at each board meeting to discuss what we’re learning and implications for our ongoing work
  • Holding staff sessions to discuss findings from assessment and research projects

How can funders apply new approaches to research and data to their work?

Data provides an opportunity for funders to allocate resources to the most effective nonprofits and increase the impact of programs they support. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and Markets for Good are both great communities of funders interested in using data and assessment to increase their impact. They provide numerous tools and case studies to help funders introduce a stronger, results-based orientation to their work.

Network analysis can be a powerful tool for funders to promote stronger collaboration and knowledge sharing in their fields. Funders can use network analysis to identify and support stronger connections between key institutions, and monitor the level of cohesion in the fields over time. Meanwhile, network analysis can help with surfacing co-investment opportunities with other funders, and the development of common terminology and insights across the field.

All funders can have a greater impact in their field, not just their organization, by publishing assessment data and findings externally. Setting aside the importance of transparently discussing success and failure, data openness would spur more cross-sector collaboration on field-wide learning initiatives, build more robust data sets and avoid duplicative research costs.

Foundations interested in tapping into the power of data must also support the capacity of their grant partners to collect and analyze data. Knight has funded DataKind to work with a handful of grantees to strengthen data usage; it’s intriguing to think about how Knight and others could make additional investment in ramping up the data capacity of nonprofits as they increasingly seek this support.

Jonathan Sotsky, director of strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation