Big Data In Nonprofits

Despite the dominance of private companies, data is impacting non-profits


The nonprofit sector is, apparently, booming. According to the New York Times, ‘The overall economy has been expanding slowly, but at least one sector is vibrant: nonprofits, which have been growing at a breakneck pace.’ And while the nonprofit sector has always had heart, charities have in the past perhaps lacked a decisive, unbiased brain to guide them. Increasingly, however, the more than 10 million people working in the sector are being led in their decision making by data.

Data analytics is helping charities in two major ways - outreach to attract donations and attention for a cause, as well as identifying how best to use the money.

The nature of outreach has changed dramatically in recent years for many nonprofits, with the digital age and the rise of social media meaning that it now takes place primarily online. This opens up a wealth of new opportunities, and looking at the data can help decision makers in nonprofits identify how best to exploit these. Nonprofits can analyze the unstructured data from their Twitter and Facebook feeds to determine how best to approach a fundraising campaign, determine user sentiment, and pinpoint how it could be made more effective. This is done using natural language processing (NLP), a technology that derives understanding from unstructured data such as written text, to determine the ways users are currently posting about issues related to your cause to help create a campaign they will respond to and target them based on demographics. Sentiment analysis can then ensure that the campaign is having an impact, looking at metrics such as likes and shares, as well as using NLP again to see how people are responding in their tweets and updates. Social media is often described as an outrage machine, which can be negative but it can also be harnessed by charities to help them attract supporters.

Data can also be used to increase personalization - vital not only in attracting first-time donors, but also in retaining them. Data can be used to reward behaviors and encourage repeat givers, as well as hopefully incite larger donations. Automated thank you notes are no longer enough, and a scale of donor gifts can help keep people’s attention on you.

At last year’s Big Data Innovation Summit in San Francisco, Andy Veluswami, Director of Data Science & Analytics at petition website, discussed how his organization was using data. They study all forms of data around their many petitions to better gain attention and convert them into action - identifying how petitions grow across the world to make a more impactful statement. Veluswami noted the correlation they identified between those who signed the petition to outlaw the Yulin Festival, where between an estimated 10,000-15,000 dogs are consumed, and those who signed petitions following the death of Cecil the lion at the hands of a Minnesota hunter. Data science linked those users through something called campaign analytics, which provided a range of insights to help identify correlations. The petitions following Cecil the lion’s death calling on American and Delta Airlines to ban the transportation of exotic animals were successful as a result.

Another way that charities are looking to data is finding solutions to the problems they are trying to solve. One way nonprofits are doing this is through hackathons. Organizations like DataKind organize weekend events where coders, data scientists, and designers come together for 48 hours to build software solutions and try and find patterns of behavior among supports. DataKind has three types of programs to connect teams of data scientists with mission-driven organizations around the globe, including so-called ‘DataDives’ - weekend events that team nonprofits with volunteer data scientists to find solutions to social ills. For example, in one such ‘DataDive’, data scientists worked with The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that helps rehabilitate veterans back into society after their military service is up. A group of data science volunteers analyzed survey data to identify actions that could help veterans succeed in the program. As a result, The Mission Continues found a number of new ways that they could tailor their programs to better support the growing numbers veterans from the Gulf and Afghanistan.

In many cases, charities still lack full data maturity. In the age of social media, we are now bombarded with causes, which, while presenting opportunities, means it is easy to get drowned out amongst the noise. Charities’ spending is often held up to a higher standard of scrutiny than private enterprise, but it is a worthwhile investment.


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