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Using Data to Build Nonprofit Advocacy Capacity

MFG Archive, Profiles

Rick Anderson of Washington Nonprofits writes about serving the social sector with data, and what we can learn from its analysis.


Washington Nonprofits (WN) is the state association for the 58,000+ charitable organizations in Washington State. As a new organization (3 years this fall), we’ve sometimes struggled with how to serve the incredible diversity that is our sector. This article retraces our journey over the past year to learn how to use data so that our nonprofits can better drive social change.


Maps: Who, What, Where

A little over a year ago, Washington Nonprofits received a database from the Urban Institute with information on all of the 23,500+ federally recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofits in Washington State. The data included information of each organization’s federal employment identification number (FEIN), type of service, address, and reported expenses. We knew that maps would be critical to making sense of the data but didn’t know anything about mapping. With the help of a graduate student intern, we quickly became adept at making Google maps. A key step in this process was discovering the wealth of easy to use geographic data on the state OFM website. This information allowed us to overlay virtually any political boundary including city, county, legislative districts, and congressional districts. This summer, we sent the maps to our entire congressional delegation and the four state legislators who comprise our legislative nonprofit delegation. WN believes that maps can be a tool to create stronger relationships between nonprofits and our elected officials.


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State Agency Partnerships: A foundation for change

Around the same time, WN began working with the state’s First Lady Trudi Inslee to shed light on the great work that local networks of nonprofits are doing to address complex social problems such as education, health, and poverty. Over the course of this past year, we’ve taken the First Lady to Thurston, Whatcom, and Spokane counties to see the work of nonprofit networks first-hand. One of the several by-products of this effort is that we are leveraging our relationship with the Governor’s wife to develop stronger partnerships with state agencies so they can be better partners with nonprofits.


“We need to make data collection more efficient so nonprofit organizations are not being asked to provide the same information to different state agencies over and over.  We also need to use data more effectively so state agencies can be better partners with nonprofits.  My office is committed to collaborating with Washington Nonprofits which is doing impressive work to accomplish just that.”

Washington State Secretary of State Kim Wyman


In the past few months, we’ve created partnerships with:

  • The Office of the Secretary of State (nonprofit records and regulations);
  • The Employment Security Department (nonprofit economic impact); and
  • The Department of Enterprise Services (contracting).


For each agency, we see exciting possibilities to leverage our data with theirs in order to understand and address issues facing nonprofits.


Community Impact Networks: Making information actionable

Last month, Washington Nonprofits completed preliminary work with the Grays Harbor Community Foundation (GHCF) to begin shaping a strategy to address intergenerational poverty in the county. As part of our work, we compiled data from a number of sources and then created a beta website to “tell a story” about the challenges, resources, and opportunities in Grays Harbor.


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We wanted to define the issue of poverty broadly and in a way that will make it clear how nonprofits – and local public and private partners – could easily see how they fit in to the overall solution. In particular, we wanted to portray the issues in a way that is understandable, compelling, and above all, actionable.


The Community Impact Project: Putting it all together

WN has recently launched its “Community Impact Project”. The project has two broad aims:

  • Give local networks the tools they need to demonstrate and communicate measurable impact on complex social problems such as health, education, and poverty; and
  • Improve the state policy and budget environment for nonprofits and their local networks.


To make this happen, WN has formed a partnership with Tableau, a world leader in data visualization software. The good folks at Tableau have put us in touch us with their “Tableau Zen masters”, private sector volunteers who are providing their amazing expertize pro bono to help us get started. We opportunistically used Grays Harbor data to explore ideas for how we might use data to tell a story that is even more accessible, interactive, and actionable.


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In 2015, we will be working to deepen our work with First Lady Trudi Inslee, state agencies, Tableau, and local nonprofit networks to build even greater nonprofit capacity through “impact networks”. We will also be seeking to extend the 80-100 nonprofit trainings we offer each year to build peer-based “learning networks” to improve nonprofit organizational practices within communities.


We are very excited about the future – stay tuned!

Many thanks to Rick Anderson for sharing the hard work of Washington Nonprofits. With a huge volume of nonprofit data from Washington State, we look forward to hearing further progress. Be sure to follow them on Twitter for further updates, and leave any questions you may have in the comments below.

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