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Where Data Falls in the Hierarchy of Human Service Agencies’ Needs

nff_survey_2014_chartThe Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) recently released its 2014 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey. One unsurprising conclusion that can be drawn from the results: in small human service organizations that struggle simply to stay afloat, problems of data management often have to take a back seat.

The NFF website offers a very elegant interface for filtering and displaying results. That makes it easy to look at statistics on the 1,541 human service agencies that responded to the survey, omitting nonprofits of other kinds. And it’s easy to filter further by characteristics such as location and size.

In one question, organizations were asked to name their three greatest challenges, choosing from a list of 22 options. That structure forces the respondent to only mention whatever has bubbled up to the top of the priority list.

Two of the choices are obviously related to an organization’s capacity to manage data: measuring impact and information technology concerns. One other choice, arguably, may also point in the same direction: pursuing program innovation. (That’s a very data-intensive activity.)

Overall, 16% of agencies chose measuring impact as among their greatest challenges, while 5% chose information technology concerns and 5% chose pursuing program innovation. But when you separate responses by organization size, a clear pattern emerges: larger organizations were about twice as likely as small ones to name data-related areas as being their greatest challenges.

Among organizations having greater than $5 million annual budget, 20% chose measuring impact and 6% chose information technology concerns, while the percentages were half that (10% and 3%, respectively) for organizations with less than $1 million budget. And 8% of the very largest organizations—those with budget greater than $20 million—chose pursuing program innovation, compared with only 4% of the organizations under $1 million.

At first glance, this gap seems counter intuitive, since larger organizations tend to have more resources and specialized staff to devote to data-intensive work. What it most likely means, though, is that larger organizations with more stable resources have the breathing space that’s needed to think about data more—and so those issues rise to the top of the priority list.

Small organizations mentioned challenges that threaten their economic viability more than large ones did. They were more likely (46% compared with 30%) to say that achieving long-term financial sustainability was one of their greatest challenges. They were also more likely (20% compared to 11%) to choose marketing, outreach and community engagement. And they were more likely (14% compared with 7%) to mention having regular reliable cash flow.

There’s a hierarchy of organizational needs. Smaller agencies are—for whatever set of reasons—more likely to be preoccupied with basic survival concerns. That doesn’t mean that data is less of a challenge for them; quite the opposite. Nor is data any less important to their mission. They just don’t have as much time to think about it.

—Derek Coursen

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2 Comments on “Where Data Falls in the Hierarchy of Human Service Agencies’ Needs”

  1. Brian Sokol says:

    Another reason why smaller organizations may think about data less is that their data management challenges are smaller, or more easily handled by workarounds. Smaller organizations can manage their organizations with spreadsheets or standard packages. As organizations grow and begin branching into new areas, they can’t rely on manual approaches, they are drowning in data and spending a lot more time dealing with it. Also, the larger organizations probably have more funders and more burdensome and diverse reporting requirements, which also leads to more concern with data management.

    • There’s certainly a subset of smaller agencies that have relatively smaller data management challenges. How big is that subset? I don’t think anyone knows. The NFF survey is tantalizing. It offers so many great cross-sector generalizations at the level of agency—but most of the important questions about managing data need to be asked first at the level of individual programs, and then to be looked in an umbrella way, at the agency level.

      A few interesting questions to ask about a smaller agency and its programs:
      How many programs with overlapping clients does the agency have? (Even two or three programs will add complexity in more than an arithmetic way!)
      Does the program have an off-the-shelf theory-of-change, or is it trying something new? (If the latter, then it’s not likely to be able to find a standard software package or adopt standard performance metrics.)
      How many funders does the program have, and how stable are they? (I’ve seen plenty of small programs cobble together funding from more than one, with funders dropping out and coming on board from one year to the next… which goes to the point about diverse and burdensome reporting requirements.)
      Is the program required, by one or more funder, to not only report aggregate numbers but also collect granular client and service data in a particular information system or format? (That can have a big effect on a program’s ability to develop efficient internal data management practices.)

      These are all areas that need research at a more detailed level than anyone I know of has done so far.

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