Funder’s Corner: Finding Your Data Path to Success

Interview with Ken Doane of SH Cowell Foundation, one of the remaining funders committed to supporting capacity building.

Funder’s Corner: Finding Your Data Path to Success
7 mins read

Ensure your nonprofit has the right systems to gather and disseminate crucial data.

Data. It’s all the rage nowadays, with data-driven fundraising and metrics and analysis driving every aspect of nonprofit operations and programming. So how do you know if you have the right systems in place to gather and disseminate the data that’s key for your cause?

I recently interviewed Ken Doane, EVP & Chief Program Officer at SH Cowell Foundation, which is one of the remaining funders committed to supporting capacity building (in addition to programs). Cowell recently supported development of the free Making Wise Decisions (MWD) guide to help small and mid-sized nonprofits better gather, manage, and access data by figuring out what kinds of tech tools and providers can propel their work forward.

In the process of developing the platform, Ken and his team came across a range of actionable insights that can help you not only advance your technology and operations infrastructure, but better manage funder relationships.

Let’s dive into his takeaways in the first of a two-part series, to be continued in our next issue with a piece from the consulting team funded by Cowell to build MWD, who spotted some interesting trends across the many groups surveyed.

Foundation Fundraising Top Tip: Know Thyself

Conventional wisdom says to do your homework on a funder before you approach them. While this is certainly true, Ken suggests that nonprofits also need to study themselves. Why? Because in his experience, the most effective grant proposals are framed with clear self-knowledge, including:

  • How you fit in the landscape of the community;
  • How you fit into the program area your prospect oversees;
  • How your work is similar or different to other nonprofits working on the same issue or in the same community; and
  • What impact your work has on stakeholders.

Being able to clearly answer these key questions helps frame your proposal, in essence sharing why the work that you’re asking the funder to support is critical and needed. This self-assessment also provides more clarity about your needs and intended impact, as well as what approaches will be effective. Nonprofit fundraisers often use “appreciative inquiry” to learn more about our prospects, but turning the approach on yourself unearths powerful insights.

Data = Knowledge = Power

It takes experience and insight, but also data to get to know yourself—gather information internally from your staff and board, as well as externally from funders, partners, and those you serve to gain powerful context for your mission and programs, and to ensure your work is relevant. Of course, nonprofits should also collect as much data as possible on your impact. But exactly what kind of data should you gather? When assessing this, ask yourself:

  • Who are we collecting this information for; what’s the use case with our intended audience and what do we want them to do as a result?
  • What kind of information will help advance the discussion with this key stakeholder, whether for better internal decision making or encouraging a prospect, donor, or funder to invest? If fundraising is your goal, what do they care about that overlaps with our work?
  • Why should a prospect choose to support you instead of another organization or cause?

Don’t just assume you know what type of data prospects value, ask them!

Having a clear sense of your needs and capacities with data, you have a much higher likelihood of success when it comes to choosing and implementing tools and processes with data, in addition to communicating your impact effectively both internally and externally.

Nonprofit’s data needs vary widely, and hence so do the tools that are most appropriate for any given organization. Given Cowell’s work funding IT infrastructure for K-12, family resource centers, and other youth development work, they got lots of questions about which platforms and providers were most helpful and relevant. Given their limited capacity to respond directly or fund tons of consultants to do this work and the clear need, they developed the MWD tool to help nonprofits help themselves.

The platform helps guide you to the most helpful tools given your needs, using a “choose your own adventure” format that helps you find your path to impact. Once you identify the right tools, your next step is to continue on a path of inquiry, adaptation, and implementation. As Einstein once said, “You don’t need to know all the answers, you just need to know where to find them.”

Using Leverage To Expand Impact

Cowell supported the development of a tool that can be shared with any nonprofit looking to up level their data usage. In other words, they leveraged their limited resources to create the biggest impact possible—an approach that any nonprofit would do well to adopt. In the case of Making Wise Decisions, the foundation decided to develop a self-serve, free platform that stands to benefit many nonprofits, not just their grantees. Ken shared that most funders struggle with how to maximize impact given limited resources and personnel—a challenge faced by just about all nonprofits.

So ask yourself: how can you leverage the assets you have available to maximize impact, and then share that thinking with your funders to showcase your innovative thinking and enlist their support?

Cowell also followed its own advice around asking for input. When they retained B3 Consults and Public Profit to spearhead the project, their first order of business was to conduct a survey of a wide variety of nonprofits, vendors, and consultants to identify the challenges faced when helping nonprofits gather, manage, and access data.

Survey responses highlighted many common trends, challenges, and needs, which we’ll showcase in the second part of this series in our next issue. So tune in and join us next time, and in the meantime share your comments below regarding your challenges around data and be sure to check out the guide online!

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