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Note from the Curator: Decision-Making and Data

Let’s get straight to it: Nonprofits and foundations are in business to advance their missions. In the social sector, nonprofits’ and foundations’ missions sum up to making lives better. Even with the nascent convergence of for-profit and nonprofit entities to operate for “good,” the social sector will still be judged more heavily on how well decisions are made and carried out to visibly improve outcomes for people and the planet.

Just like everyone else, we’re operating in the environment of serious effects from of the 2007-8 global economic crisis, subsequent recession, and current recovery that features an historically low 1.7% growth rate in the United States as “faster than expected.” In these times, there are indications that overall charitable giving is not likely to increase significantly. What begins to form is a tough structural picture.

We can ask what constitutes good decision-making in the current landscape. For example, a majority of social sector organizations want to expand their offerings and increase the number of people that they serve despite facing both financial and human capital constraints; how will they determine if this is the right approach?

To answer questions like this, this month we’ll take a look at nonprofit decision-making and the role that data and technology can play in strengthening the quality of decision-making. There’s a solid body of work that looks in-depth at the intersection of information and decision-making, including much that is aimed directly at the social sector. We’d like to bring new thought to that conversation. We will also give space for the context in which decisions are made, especially in consideration of the unique pressures on the social sector.

The resulting series that we propose is one that not only moves in and out of tactics and strategies, but that also considers effective business models, which may simplify some decision-making.The following sub-themes will guide our commentary and our guests’ contributions:

  • Data Tools & Methods: The state of the field as seen in examples that are working and others that are evolving. Sabrina Lamb, founding CEO of the nonprofit, will offer advice on how to identify the best sources of information for decision-making—including beneficiaries. Andy Isaacson and Jason Payne of Palantir will write about starting with better data at the outset with “Open Data Done Right.” Greta Knutzen and Debra Anderson of Culture Shock NY collaborated with DataKind for a meetup; we’ll recap what they learned about how data scientists can help nonprofits.
  • The Role of Foundations: Decision-making that drives grantmaking. Marcus L. McGrew, director of grants management for the Kresge Foundation, will write about data that drive decision-making along the grantmaking continuum.
  • Business Models: Information will help us to make better decisions, but it is not created for free. Mari Kuraishi will discuss possible business models for information aggregation.

Last month, you kept the conversation going with your comments across the various blog posts on nonprofit fundraising. Thanks for that! Now, we’re on to exploring how to make better decisions. Still a lot to talk about, and we’ll look forward to your conversation once again.