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Playing the Data Playbook

This post originally appeared on Idealware

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News outlets, Twitter, and many of the blogs I follow often use the term “big data.” What always stands out to me is the word “big.” The data is BIG! Is it Godzilla big? Mount St. Helens eruption big? Death Star big? However big it is, it sounds scary and overwhelming.

Your nonprofit is probably not drawing on “big data” and it doesn’t need to. “Little data,” pocket-sized data about your org and its people is what you need. And it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. That’s why we at Idealware are so glad to see this microsite from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Its Data Playbook works like an online tutorial, guiding you through the steps as you think through what you’ll need to do to begin using data at your nonprofit.

I’d encourage you to browse around the site yourself, but here are some highlights and commentary to get you started.

What Data to Collect

It can be tempting to try to collect anything and “everything” and then sort it out later, but you’ll waste a lot of time that way and the chances are good you won’t learn what you need to know.

The playbook tries to get you to focus on your strategic plan and build off of that foundation. The idea is that if you know what you’re trying to accomplish in your work and how you plan to accomplish it, you can measure your progress along the way.

At Idealware, we like to start with your mission statement and break it down into definitions that can be used as metrics. The more specific your mission, the better your metrics. For example, if your mission says that you want to “improve the academic skills and test performance for young, low-income students of color,” you have a lot of specific questions to ask and data to track. What academic skills matter most? What test scores should you track? What age group should you focus on? What are the income levels you want to track? What ethnicities? Once you make these decisions, then you can measure your progress in achieving these different parts of your mission and the mission as a whole.

How to Collect Data

We are a data-rich world, but it can still be tricky to know how to get the right data. The playbook helps you be realistic about what you need to collect and the resources available to you to collect it. Our recent post by Robert Penna and Deb Finn offers a similar perspective—data sanity for nonprofits that worry they should be doing more.

Overall, this section does a good job of walking you through the different kinds of data that are available—including system data, external data, surveys, interviews, and focus groups—and how to collect it.

Making Meaning

Data analysis can seem like a big, complicated process—and for some organizations it is—but most nonprofits don’t need specialized software or staffers with statistical analysis degrees to learn meaningful lessons from their data. The playbook shows you how to look at your data to see various kinds of patterns. This and a few spreadsheet tricks are probably all you need to get started, but if you want to geek out and spend a lot of time with your data, the playbook provides links that can help you learn more about statistical analysis.

Communicating Results

Once you have the data, what do you do with it? Hopefully, you use it to make decisions for your nonprofit, but don’t overlook the value of sharing the data across your organization or with funders and donors. The toolkit assumes the point, but it’s worth emphasizing that your data alone is not necessarily meaningful. It needs to be contextualized for people. You have to help them see what you’re seeing. Stories are one of the best ways to do that and the playbook does a nice job of laying out the storytelling basics. Visualizations can do this very well and the toolkit provides a few pointers for planning and creating your visualization.

Add it Up

Data is valuable and using it to improve your programs and communicate your successes is within reach. That’s why we’re so glad to see this playbook from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. If you’re just getting started with data, go here first. It will give you a good baseline for whatever comes next.


Learn how to collect the best data for your nonprofit! If you want to learn more, join us for a webinar from Idealware, “Assessing your Organization's Data Maturity” on Thursday, July 13, from 2:00-3:00pm ET


Idealware, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, provides impartial, thoroughly-researched, and easy-to-understand resources to help nonprofits use technology to create greater social impact in our communities. Idealware’s publications, assessments, and training can save you time and money by providing guidance that gives you the knowledge and confidence you need to decide what’s best for your organization.

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