Many nonprofits are comfortable with the idea of using data to analyze and target their fundraising efforts. How else is your nonprofit using data?

Have you ever thought how a big dataset can help your organization accomplish your mission?

There’s now an overwhelming amount of data that you can access for free or for a relatively small fee. For an example of what’s out there, check out or Infochimps. Additionally, your organization may be sitting on a wealth of data. The tools for utilizing this data, while not mature yet, have rapidly increased the general knowledge and ability to make use of this data. This data is already being applied by fundraisers.

In fundraising, the use of data has a pretty straightforward purpose: target donors, raise more money. But a large majority a the data that’s out there is of a different type; I think of it as data in search of a question. There’s a growing group of people who are interested in using this data for the common good. My two favorite organizations along this theme are the Sunlight Foundation and Data Without Borders. So how can your nonprofit start asking these questions and get involved?

To make these steps more concrete, I’ll relate a real life data project done by Data Without Borders and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU):

  1. Find a source of data that relates to the mission of your nonprofit.
    NYCLU acquired the data that’s been recorded as part of the NYPD’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ program.
  2. Think of some questions that this data set may answer.
    NYCLU was wondering if there may be some racial bias in the application of the “Stop and Frisk” program.
  3. Find someone to do some serious crunching.
    NYCLU brought the data to a “Data Dive,” in New York City where Data Without Borders had assembled a team of volunteers. In this case they produced several mappings of the data and did notice some trends to back up their hypothesis.

While all three of these steps are unfamiliar territory for many nonprofits, it seems the last step may be the deal breaker. While the field of data science is still emerging (not as easy to find as a website designer), there is one free way. Data Without Borders exists to match up nonprofits with volunteers to work with your data. Your organization may not be ready for a data project at this moment but I do believe it’s time to start conceptualizing the good that your organization could accomplish with data.