Skip to content

A Researcher’s View on Social Sector Data

researcher's viewOur conversation on upgrading the information infrastructure for the social sector takes place at a moment in which both the technological and cultural/organizational changes needed to make it happen are equally urgent. And they’re happening. Elizabeth Boris offers a researcher’s perspective on these movements toward better data practice and talks about what’s needed to ensure a meaningful upgrade of the infrastructure.

Data fragmentation and duplication in the social sector – evident in the proliferation of online donor information sites, each with its own definitions and processes – is costly. Information that cannot be aggregated into deeper organizational portraits and comprehensive information on the sector does not add much value.

Nevertheless, the field is in a better position than ever before to obtain and use better data, and demand is growing as technology makes sharing and linking information easy and cost-effective. Further, funders (including governments) are increasingly requiring nonprofits to develop metrics and to collect and share information.

And, social enterprises are seeking better measures for returns on investment, which has led to path-breaking collaborations to develop taxonomies and common indicators, for example, the Global Investment Impact Network has pioneered the development of IRIS, a common language and standard metrics for reporting and comparing investment returns.

Those of us who have toiled in the nonprofit data vineyards are happy to see the host of new vintners, including Markets For Good, and the visibility and energy they bring. Experience suggests the following requirements for an upgraded information infrastructure:

Negotiation and Collaboration: We must have facilitators willing to marshal stakeholders—nonprofit leaders, philanthropies and relevant government agencies and experts—to work out the details of protocols and standards. The National Charities Information Bureau in 1979 advanced the idea that the sector needed one, uniform, annual reporting form for nonprofits—not one for each state. Getting government to agree on the elements of the Form 990 with nonprofit sector input was a major accomplishment that saved millions of dollars over the years.

Persistence and Advocacy: The effort to improve and make data on nonprofits accessible has taken many years and involved major sector organizations. While the time is ripe to deepen and standardize information collected independently, we must acknowledge that the IRS data collected annually on Forms 990 are critical to our ability to understand the sector. There must be ongoing interaction with the IRS if we want sector information to be robust, inclusive, and ongoing.

Standards take time to become common currency. As chair of the decade long effort in the 1980s to create the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) with input from experts and many organizations, I can say that the process was more political and took longer than I expected and it was almost another decade before use was widespread and the IRS adopted the NTEE classifications.

Electronic filing of Forms 990 is the latest battlefront. Electronic filing will improve the accuracy and timeliness of data. Free software, available on the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) website is just one strategy. There should be a sector-wide effort to promote electronic filing and an advocacy strategy to have that data made available to everyone.

Impact and Effectiveness: Lack of data to assess the effectiveness of organizations is the current driver for improving the sector’s data infrastructure. Yet, a serious sector-wide conversation on what that will take has yet to happen. Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason is a passionate wake-up call. Filling that information gap requires not only common standards and measurement tools for donors, but nonprofit capacity to measure, use and report data on their outcomes. There is also a key role for beneficiary feedback here.

Research: Neglected in recent data commentaries are individual researchers and organizations that use data to answer questions and describe the sector. They also have a stake in better, accessible data. Online data sets provided by NCCS, GuideStar and Foundation Center have accelerated research on the sector. No longer does every research project need a hefty budget to collect data. The NCCS Nonprofit Almanac provides the basic scope of the sector for advocacy and planning.

A New Paradigm

There is definitely a great need for a new paradigm in “how the social sector uses and shares information to improve outcomes and change lives.” As part of the idea-sharing that Markets for Good is pursuing now, below are several potential models that might evolve. Each raises questions for Markets for Good:

 –Clearing House: Current technology makes it easy to link everything. A clearing-house could facilitate interaction, idea-sharing and links to all kinds of data. One example is, a free, online system created by Urban Institute, Child Trends and Social Solutions to provide evidence-based performance indicators, tested measurement tools, and guidance on service delivery.

–Collaboration Hub: Organizations could be encouraged to develop data-sharing protocols, definitions, and cost saving ventures to strengthen and link their data.

An example is the NCCS Community Platform that brings together NCCS Form 990 data for a community, adds demographic data from the Census, and connects to local 211 information and other sources, linking formerly separate data silos and providing mapping, financial analysis, outcome measurement and interactive project management tools for community decision-making.

–Change Agent: Attempts to fundamentally restructure the data infrastructure. Consolidation and linking of data and platforms are underway, witness the partnerships at GuideStar (Philanthropedia); Foundation Center (TechSoup Global); and NCCS (Fundraising Effectiveness project with AFP, five other sponsors and 11 fundraising software companies). More efforts could be encouraged with appropriate incentives and facilitation.

Each of the roles raises questions about how to involve stakeholders, who will do the work, how will it be funded and how will critical oversight and transparency be ensured.

The payoff for the nonprofit sector will require collaboration, persistence, advocacy and patience—in addition to technology.