Strong interest in our recent workshop, Giving Data a Voice, confirmed for Peel Leadership Centre that folks in nonprofits care about data and how it can be used to further their work.  It seems we are drowning in data and somehow, we need to make sense of it.  The term ‘big data’ has been used to describe sets of data that are so large and complex that new technologies have been invented to analyze, visualize and share them.

For most nonprofits, the concept of big data may feel irrelevant and yet there are an increasing number of tools at our disposal that help us to combine and visualize our smaller sets of data in new ways. The technologies that have enabled sense-making of big data have elevated what we believe is possible to learn from the information we collect.

Even if we don’t have an IT department, we can use tools that allow us to capture and present our data in increasingly sophisticated ways. Website analytics programs are one example of a commonly used technology that allows us to combine, analyze and visualize data so that we understand more about the characteristics and behaviour of the visitors to our website.

This task of gathering, interpreting and reporting on data is most often assigned to the most technically minded person within an organization and when this happens an opportunity is missed. Leaving this to just one person deprives our organizations of the richness of diverse perspectives on our data. We may not have ‘big data’ but we are, nevertheless, responsible for sharing it in a way that helps others gain insights into the effects our work is having on our communities.

Our results matter

Regardless of the size or scale of our data, understanding what it means and why it matters is essential because the social challenges we address in our work have real consequences. Beyond its meaning for each organization, our data is also essential for our sector. It tells a collective story of our work and the needs in our communities.

As most nonprofits don’t have budgets that allow us to purchase this expertise either in the way of cutting edge technology or staff, we need to become more data literate ourselves. Data literacy, however, isn’t an innate talent, but rather a skill that can be developed over time.

Building your data literacy muscle

Unless you are a social scientist, becoming data literate can feel intimidating. We want to know that our efforts are making an impact, but we may not be sure where to start. Even if we only collect data that is required by our funders, we still want it to take us beyond measurement of activities and inform us about our effectiveness and our future direction. The key is to collect the right data for what you want to know which may go beyond what we include in reports to funders.

With this increasing interest in nonprofits and their data, there are a growing number of resources to help build data literacy skills. Locally, Peel Counts offers a number of data reports and resources related to health and human services that would be helpful in creating funding proposals. More than this, however, resources like this help us to become more comfortable with data and to learn about different ways it can be collected and presented.

Making sense requires more than one perspective

Just as one person should not be responsible for collecting and analyzing all of our data, becoming data literate should not be one person’s responsibility either. In fact, some organizations are now cultivating a data culture where everyone recognizes the importance of data and its role in guiding decision-making. This is a great way to help staff at all levels understand our shared stake in organizational success.

Gathering staff together to make sense of our data allows us to tap into the skills of our team and the organizational knowledge that is unique to our role. From executive director, to program managers and front-line staff, each will have a view of the organization that can provide context that enriches the data’s meaning and value. This process may also draw out personal strengths that are not necessarily associated with roles. Someone with a visual arts background, for instance, may be able to suggest ways to present the data in new ways. One person may be great with spreadsheets while another is better at observing patterns – and don’t forget the storyteller – the person who excels at giving human dimension to facts and details. They can craft a story of how our nonprofit has helped that is more compelling than numbers and pie charts. The sum of these contributions builds data literacy across an organization and reinforces how important it is to collect and use data responsibly on an everyday basis.

Interesting ways to visualize data – beyond the bar graph

Think presentations on statistics are boring? Check out how Hans Rosling tells the story of 200 years in 200 countries. He uses a data visualization technique that is accessible and fun to watch – a style that is well-suited to the general audience who view it on Youtube.

Part of data literacy is being able to present data in a way our audiences will understand it.  Even if we think the data we collect today doesn’t perfectly reflect our needs, we can still take advantage of the many free online tools and tutorials that will help us to visualize our data.

Rahul Bhargava from the MIT Center for Civic Media, uses art approaches to help groups visualize data and show it in new and creative ways. With each smaller group contributing their visual, multiple perspectives are gathered that allow insights to emerge that are richer than a solitary interpretation and help organizations try out the stories they can tell with their data.  From crayon and paper to the creation of data sculptures using everyday physical objects, Rahul helps people build their data literacy in a way that is accessible and fun, helping to unlock a way of sense-making that uses the creative mind as well as our innate ability to see patterns.

There are also websites that help build competency in visualizing data where sample data can be used in order to practice working with data in different ways. Learning to use these data visualization tools may also provide useful examples of data sets that can help to inform how and what our organizations collect in the future.

Most of us aren’t born with our data wizardry intact, but with time and practice we can become good data stewards who use data to steer our organizations toward greater social impact.

Here are some related articles on data and nonprofits:

This article shares how nonprofits can build culture and use available tools to tackle ‘medium data’ and achieve greater impact.

This article provides some examples of data-sharing partnerships between nonprofits that gave them deeper insights into the impact of their work collectively.

This is ONN’s work in building a data strategy for the sector.

This article describes how to approach telling stories with data based on the needs of the intended audience.

Free online courses that provide the fundamentals of understanding data and how to collect and present it.

And now we want to hear from you! How is your organization attempting to make data accessible and understood? We’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


This week’s blog was written by Liz Dennis, PLC’s Communications and Evaluation Manager. Liz’s experience in the nonprofit sector has focused on building the connection between people and services as information manager, content strategist and partnership engagement manager. Liz is enjoying getting to know nonprofits in Peel Region and helping to build PLC’s evaluation activities.

Pin It on Pinterest