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Filling the Nonprofit Information Vacuum

Filling The Information Vacuum

Cinthia Schuman Ottinger, Deputy Director for Philanthropy Programs at the Aspen Institute’s  Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, discusses the need for nonprofit data and the impact that it can have.  A good part of the problem, however, is unlocking that data from the protocols and structures that render is less accessible, less useful. Cinthia closes by describing what can be done today and a few concrete ways in which we could benefit.

Responding to natural disasters; feeding the poor; caring for the elderly; educating our children; nursing the sick; and advocating for our most fundamental rights.

With missions such as these, US nonprofit organizations are far too important to be operating in an information vacuum. But that is exactly what is happening to this influential and economically powerful sector of society.

Despite the government collecting reams of data about the US nonprofit sector, much nonprofit information, if available at all, is almost two years old or more. That is too late to deal with problems as they arise, or to signal to policymakers, donors and nonprofit leaders that new challenges are emerging.

At The Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, an effort of the Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, we are working with the nation’s top nonprofit data providers – the Foundation Center, GuideStar, Johns Hopkins University, Indiana University and the Urban Institute  – to promote accessible, accurate and current information on the US nonprofit sector.

Given the nature of nonprofit work and the state of technology today – in which real-time data are increasingly possible in formats that can be manipulated for expanded analysis and use — we urge nothing less.

Examples of our data work include:

  •  research that Aspen has commissioned to understand the current Form 990 information delivery system, and recommend improvements and efficiencies that might be achieved, including the potential for expanded electronic filing. Look for this research in the next few months!;
  • an effort with Johns Hopkins University to uncover nonprofit employment and wage information, data that the Bureau of Labor Statistics already collects quarterly, but are obscured because the nonprofit sector is not categorized separately for reporting purposes; and,
  • work to promote a more accurate tracking system for federal grants, contracts, and vouchers, monies that represent a large portion of nonprofit revenue.

Efforts like the Nonprofit Data Project and Markets for Good have both set out to transform the state of data in the social sector.

We both envision the social sector having access to better information and using that data in meaningful ways, building real-time tools for understanding, analysis and forecasting.

The Nonprofit Data Project is focusing on “macro” government data on the nonprofit sector, which feeds directly into the larger information infrastructure described in the Markets for Good vision.

The consistent classifications, technical standards, reporting protocols, platforms and governance mechanisms envisioned in Markets for Good are all building blocks for greater coordination and knowledge-sharing among nonprofits, government, socially-oriented businesses, funders and the people these entities serve.

For example, current, accurate and computable data culled from the 990s, Bureau of Labor Statistics and other government data sets could potentially:

  • Provide nonprofit leaders, policymakers and donors with up-to-date information on the impact of the Great Recession on nonprofit employment, helping to understand what parts of the social sector are losing or gaining critical personnel.
  • Give policymakers, donors and nonprofit leaders accurate, real-time figures on federal funding of the nonprofit sector, showing where spending has gone up or down and what areas of nonprofit activity are attracting or shedding resources.
  • Arm nonprofit executives, donors and trustees with current nonprofit revenue and spending trends broken down by type of nonprofit, helping nonprofit leaders to gauge where their groups stand in comparison to others and helping donors to determine where to effectively place their dollars and when.
  • Enable the public to instantly find maps showing where nonprofit offices are located, aiding those in need, and helping donors and policymakers to see where possible gaps or gluts in services exist.
  • Help state charity officials identify and address potential problems earlier, improving compliance, reducing fraud and creating a climate of greater accountability.
  • Assist policymakers and nonprofits to understand the consequences of policy options affecting nonprofits, and help nonprofit organizations respond with solid facts.

Clearly, a sector that represents 10% of the workforce and trillions of dollars in assets needs to get a better handle on its overall workforce, finances, and programs in order to have the greatest impact.

While it is important to recognize that good data are only part of what is needed to promote impact, they are a critical part.

Let’s not forget: what is not counted, often does not count. Without regular, solid statistics on the nonprofit sector, the full impact of the social sector will not be realized.