Why Nonprofits Need Data Mindfulness

data mindfulness

*Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a 12-part series with EqualTo, a data strategy and consulting company for startups and nonprofits, discussing Data Mindfulness for today’s entrepreneurs.

At Equal To, Data Mindfulness is a core practice for us and our clients, whether they are startups, small companies, or nonprofits. Our first two articles defined Data Mindfulness and offered basic actions for integrating it into your life. This article is the first of two that will focus on nonprofits. We recognize how essential it is for nonprofits to practice Data Mindfulness in different ways than for-profit organizations.

All the Feels

The missions of nonprofits are grounded in making change and creating social value. When you feel strongly about a cause or have deeply rooted emotions for the work you are doing, it can be easy to get caught up in making gut decisions that may turn out to be detrimental to your mission. Data Mindfulness allows you to make decisions to support your gut , or prove it wrong, while continuing your work towards your mission.

Data Mindfulness is crucial in the initial steps of defining your mission. Nonprofit missions can be more abstract – goals like gender equality, increasing childhood literacy, and racial justice – require a more mindful thought process than monetizing a new mobile application. Data mindfulness is crucial to translate these sometimes ambiguous or idealized missions into measurable data, and it’s important to set goals, performance indicators, and create strategies without letting embedded emotions cloud your judgment.

For example, our client Electric Girls describes what they do as, “Transforming girls into confident, innovative leaders in technology.” It’s clear that the founder of Electric Girls has real emotions attached to the programs she creates for working to the greater cause of the gender gap in technology. But as data consultants, we ask ourselves how do we translate things like confidence, innovation, and leadership into data and how do we know that we are creating this impact?

Electric Girls shows data mindfulness by collecting data to gauge whether the program participants feel confident enough in their skills to teach others, as opposed to simply asking whether they’ve learned a skill or not. It’s easy to create programs that we think matter, but it’s another step to make data mindful decisions about what really makes an impact.

Show Me the Money

Nonprofits tend to be less focused on fiscal goals compared to for-profit businesses that measure success through profits and losses. However, resource allocation and fundraising are crucial for the implementation of a nonprofit’s mission.

Resource allocation in the nonprofit world is competitive, and here is where data mindfulness gives you an edge. Terms like “data science” and “tools for managing data analytics” may seem foreign for nonprofits. But it’s time to get more comfortable with these ideas, and to embrace them in your organization. Presenting data that has been mindfully curated to tell your story will reflect it in monetary returns, shows donors and investors that your organization is forward thinking and staying ahead of the curve, and will set your organization apart in fundraising and awareness campaigns.

For example, Amnesty International, one of the world’s leading human rights advocacy organizations has started to use predictive analytics to make fundraising more efficient. Such a large organization inevitably has a complex set of data that crosses countries and contains thousands of donors. That data was ripe for setting up effective data management workflows, and predictive data science methods that would allow the organization to find out information such as which donors would be most responsive to particular types of fundraising campaigns.

Motivation and Culture

Meditation allows you to destress and recharge. Similarly, data mindfulness serves to motivate you and those around you in doing the work you set out to do. Those of us who enter the nonprofit sector do so because we have a desire to create social value, but experiencing burnout in the service of your chosen cause is a common narrative.

By taking the time to be present with your data, especially when chipping away at lofty goals, you allow yourself and your employees to eliminate the ambiguity of your goals and celebrate the small successes. Eliminating ambiguity entails setting key performance indicators, or KPI’s. KPI’s answer the questions, how are we doing? Are we trending to reach our goals? How can we continue to improve? Setting KPI’s is crucial for evaluating success and generating  awareness at the individual and organizational level. Awareness about where you are, and where to focus your efforts promotes a culture of positivity and transparency.

Maximizing Outcomes and Impact

Outputs are the immediate results achieved by an action, outcomes are the results seen after some time, and impact is the long term result that we look for to measure the success of the overall mission.

Many nonprofits tend to focus their data collection efforts on outputs instead of outcomes and impact.

Let’s take a simple example of an organization that is looking to increase the number of women in technical fields. The number of high school girls that graduate an after school coding curriculum program your organization is hosting is an output, and that’s usually about as far as an organization thinks in the early stages of program implementation. A data mindful program manager would keep in mind setting up systems that allow the organization to know what program graduates decide to study in college, and what kind of jobs they decide to enter after that period of time. These systems require proactive thought and mindfulness of the goal at hand.

“Incorporating data mindfulness in every step of your strategy ensures that you have a clear view of how your present state and actions will work towards your long-term goals.”

Among peers in the nonprofit sector, there’s often a fear of adopting a ‘corporate mindset’ that detracts from the organization’s cause. This fear can impede the creation of measurable goals, and lead to weak data sets. This takes away from the potential insight that could be gained to help the organization to fulfill its vision and achieve its’ goals. 

Organizations as new as Electric Girls and as old as Amnesty International are seeing the importance of effective data management workflows and the incorporation of data mindfulness into their operations, and the returns they see in areas like mission impact and fundraising are immensely valuable.  It’s time for nonprofit professionals to take the lead in data mindfulness practice for the public sector in pursuit of their mission to do good for the world.

Lama Ahmad

Lama Ahmad is a Founding Team Member focused on Nonprofit Strategy at Equal To. Lama is a Lebanese-American raised in Dearborn, Michigan, and currently studies Social Research & Public Policy and Interactive Media & Technology at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is an advocate for women in technology and data driven decisions for public service and social entrepreneurship. Follow her on Twitter @_lamaahmad

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