Anything and everything that can be digitized is data. And there’s more and more of it every day.  It does not matter if those bits of data are gathered by a smart fridge in your kitchen, a digitally connected speed trap, the online store you frequent, the Niagara Falls of information that is social media, or the ATM that dispenses cash when you need it.

Once in digital form that data can be processed and analyzed to reveal insights that can be used to sell you things you didn’t know you wanted, cure diseases, improve your company’s bottom-line — or make your non-profit’s advocacy more effective.

Given limited resources, a typical nonprofit has little room for non-productive efforts. Big data can help pinpoint the right targets and methods.

You may think that your organization already uses data in your reporting. But that doesn’t mean you use analytics.

As encapsulated in a blog post from Heller Consulting:

In a nutshell, analytics for nonprofits is using your data to objectively evaluate your organization’s practices, providing insights for effective forecasting and decision making. It is a detailed analysis built with accuracy, consistency, and rigor over an extended period of time. To be clear, analytics is not the typical reporting that many organizations already do.

Much more than a data snapshot, committing to an analytics initiative will enable your organization to deliver more of your mission, more effectively. The insights obtained are based on your organization’s unique goals, and will guide the decisions and changes your organization makes as you plan for the future. This is a key feature of an analytics initiative and is what elevates it above standard reporting.


Effective use of analytics can help determine the value of programs and initiatives as they relate to serving your beneficiaries, building long-term relationships with your supporters, and guiding your nonprofit forward.

There is, however, a voice crying in the wilderness about the promise — and the danger — of relying on analytics and Big Data. Dave Karpf is the author of Analytic Activism, a book about how nonprofits could survive and thrive in the digital age.

Karpf writes:

Data wizardry is a dangerous myth, because analytics can either be used to thoughtfully improve how you make strategic and tactical decisions or it can be used to avoid making decisions. The promise of the data wizards is that you can bypass the hard choices by just “trusting the data.” That’s a bad idea.


The reality of analytic activism is both more mundane and more promising. The best advocacy nonprofits have built a culture of testing that encourages constant measurement and small-scale experiments to see what resonates in the changing media environment. Those nonprofits stay aware of what their data doesn’t tell them, and they draw from a range of data sources rather than blindly “trusting the data.” They also think hard about how they are measuring supporter feedback, and about how they use analytics as “strategic objects” to help their leaders make more effective decisions.

Data and analytics aren’t magic and they aren’t a panacea. But they do provide new ways to listen to your supporters. The organizations that succeed in today’s digital environment aren’t the ones with the most social media content or the funniest memes. They’re the ones that do the best job of listening, and use that listening to adapt.