Recommended Reading: Data Driven Nonprofits
Updated: Jun 6
This month, I am proud to feature a guest blog post from a personal hero of mine, Steve MacLaughlin, Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and author of this month's recommended reading: Data Driven Nonprofits. Steve has spent over 20 years driving innovation within our sector and, now, he is here to share his journey to learning to love data. Join us below!
Guest Blog Post: How I Learned to Love Data
I have spent years analyzing and making sense of nonprofit data. Along the way, I’ve worked with countless nonprofit organizations to understand the hidden value in their data. My views on the nonprofit sector are informed by data and it has meant becoming a sought after expert on a range of topics.
But I have a confession to make: I am a “D” calculus student. Mathematics, statistics, and working with numbers never came easy to me. I wasn’t very good at it and for years I avoided it. I am sure that is true for many of us. But then I started to see the power of data and the value of insights. And a few amazing mentors really helped me go from avoiding data to embracing it.
I learned to love data when I could see first hand how it helped nonprofit organizations solve problems, overcome obstacles, and drive their missions forward. It was also clear to me is that so many organizations were struggling to become more data driven. That lead to a research project to understand why nonprofits were not more data driven which, in turn, led to a book and Data Driven Nonprofits became a bestseller in 2016.
Nonprofit organizations are vital to making meaningful change in the world and they have significant amounts of untapped potential in their data. But why do some nonprofits struggle to use data while others have successfully harnessed information to drive better decision making? To answer this question, I spent time researching the habits, mindsets, and cultures of successful data driven nonprofits. Along the way, I interviewed more than 20 nonprofit experts from a wide variety of organizations.
I learned to love data when I could see first hand how it helped nonprofit organizations solve problems, overcome obstacles, and drive their missions forward.
I found successful data driven organizations across nearly every sub-sector including higher education, international relief, religious, medical research, healthcare, human services, mental health and crisis intervention, community improvement and capacity building, environmental, and animal welfare.
Over time there emerged three critical characteristics in Data Driven Nonprofits that each of these successful nonprofits had in common:
1. Natural Curiosity: Time and time again, the best examples of people using data to drive decisions are those who have curious minds. They may not all have a background in statistics, mathematics or computer science, but all of them were curious people. They want to understand why things happen and how the world works. Natural curiosity is a prerequisite for changing the status quo and data driven nonprofits empower their people to explore what’s possible.
2. Champions at All Levels: We often hear about the importance of top-down leadership to make change happen. While the support of leadership is important it simply is not enough. The most successful data driven nonprofits have champions at all levels of the organization working to drive change. They may not have the fancy title or the corner office, but they make things happen each and every day.
3. Data is Not a Foreign Object: These were the words of Christoph Gorder, chief water officer at charity: water. It encapsulates the mindset of highly data driven organizations. Data is part of the daily workflow and forms the basis for how decisions are made. Data driven nonprofits embrace the use of information to accelerate change.
These nonprofits are accelerating change in the world by using data to influence strategy and inform decisions that produce value and impact. All of these organizations have invested in people, process, data, and technology. But that is simply not enough. It turns out that the secrets to success are being curious, having champions at all levels of the organization, and making data part of the daily workflow.
Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and bestselling author of Data Driven Nonprofits. MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and on National Public Radio. MacLaughlin previously served on the board of NTEN, is a frequent keynote speaker, and is an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University. Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.
Juliana M. Weissbein, CFRE is a respected leader and decision influencer in regard to fundraising operations best practices. With over a decade of experience, Juliana thrives on professional growth, team success, measurable results, and inspiring fundraisers to utilize data-based strategies. Juliana currently serves as the Associate Director of Development Operations at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She is AFP Global's 2019 Outstanding Young Professional Fundraiser and is a member of the AFP Global Women's Impact Initiative. Juliana is immediate past chair of the AFP New York City chapter’s Emerging Leaders Committee and currently serves on the chapter’s board chairing their mentorship program. She resides in Brooklyn, NY and never turns down a good kombucha.