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Take the Next Step with Data Sharing for Nonprofits


Net Tuesday Crowd

Your organization is already tracking and collecting data -- how much money you raised, how many supporters you have, donor relationships, mission statistics, etc. -- but have you considered freely sharing your data?

While some data is extremely confidential, your organization’s non-personal data could be very useful to other nonprofits, charities, funders, and the general public. The open data movement is rapidly gaining support, so it’s time to learn what it is and how it impacts your organization.

TechSoup Canada, together with Ushnish Sengupata and Gabe Sawhney, invited Melanie Gorka, Bill Morris, Stephanie McAllister and Heather Leson to a Toronto Net Tuesday panel to share their collective wisdom on the benefits of data sharing and how your nonprofit can take the next step.

This blog shares a summary of the ideas that were discussed, and you can also watch the recording.

What is open and shared data?

Open data is data that is freely available for everyone to use, reuse and redistribute, without the restrictions from copyrights and patents. The philosophy behind open data recently gained massive popularity with the launch of open-data government initatives, such as

Shared data is data that is shared with people or organizations outside your nonprofit. It could be completely open, or it could be restricted to specific partner organizations.

Why should I open or share my data?

The biggest benefit of opening or sharing data is to make a bigger impact. If we truly want to make a difference as a sector, we need to look at the bigger picture.

Open data can help ...

  • your donors, volunteers, funders and stakeholders understand what you have accomplished.
    The more data we share, the more the public will trust the nonprofit sector.
    We need to demonstrate the value of what we do as a whole. Opening and sharing your data is a great way to build trust with your donors, volunteers and funders. It shows them the actual impact of their dollars.
  • build the nonprofit sector.
    We should build on each other’s knowledge, not reinvent the wheel. Sharing industry knowledge allows us to make fewer mistakes, make bigger advances and find solutions faster.
  • you accomplish your mission.
    When you share your data, the greater public can help you identify gaps you wouldn’t have noticed before. The benefit of cross checking cannot be overstated: the collective eyes and knowledge of the community can help you resolve issues you couldn’t solve on your own.

I’m still not convinced … are there examples of successful data sharing or open data?

TimeRaiser shares their data and budget in real time, online. Opening TimeRaiser’s data has been really successful in building trust with their stakeholders and funders.

Maps in the global community are also great examples of successful data sharing. Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) has numerous projects to share, such as mapping for the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Within one month after the earthquake hit, over 600 people added information to HOT’s map in Haiti. This data became the default basemap for responding organizations such as Search and Rescue teams, United Nations, World Bank and other Humanitarian mapping NGOs like MapAction and iMMAP.

United Way Toronto has also contributed to the open data movement for their “Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy” by sharing research findings on the diverse civic, social and economic fabric of Toronto, as well as mapping priority neighbourhoods in Toronto. By sharing their ideas and findings, United Way has helped the City of Toronto and other investors make informed decisions on where to invest for social enterprise in order to continue the health and success of the city.

I guess I should share my data ...  where should I start?

Find some data to share!
If you’re completely new to data sharing, start simple - post your annual report and financials on your website. If you’re already doing that, consider publishing sanitized data or research reports.

Bill recommends looking around your office and see what data you have on hand. You may not see value in sharing certain data but others may find value in it, share it, and bring positive action. For example, sharing how much money you raised may result in your supporters sharing the data and may lead to increased revenue generation (a variation of the “friends asking friends” model).

Share Internally First
Whether it’s intentional or not, everyone has worked in silos. Get into the habit of sharing your data with your entire organization and work outside the confines of your immediate department. Great opportunities can present itself if you share your data across departments. For example, if your organization has a high percentage of millennial volunteers, consider sharing this with your fundraising department. This may inspire them to come up with a more effective fundraising event.

And don’t forget your board! They’re internal as well and need to be included in the education process.

Then Share Externally
Translate your non-personal data to the web. Surface all the great things your organization has done and make it dynamic on your website. Don’t hide your successes - make that information digestible! hint: don’t just pdf

A great study by 501cTECH, Idealware, Network for Good, NPower, NTEN, Tech Impact and TechSoup demonstrates how important it is to share data among the nonprofit sector.

What are commons barriers to sharing data and how do I overcome them?

Nonprofits are too busy doing the mission work
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it isn’t a great thing either. It’s very easy to get into the routine of churning out your mission services and fundraising events; making it hard to plan your data strategy.

The best way to approach this issue is to decide when you would like to open your data and set deadlines. Your organization will always be busy, so what you need to do is to just start. An attendee shared with us how their nonprofit does not have open data at the moment but they’re “very early in the stage. This organization has been collecting data for a long time, but it takes that shift to actually start”.

Issues of Perceived Ownership
Collecting data is not cheap and it takes valuable time, money and resources from your nonprofit. When it comes to opening that data, it can be tempting to “brand” your data and control it through copyrights or patents.

Stephanie reminds us that “it’s important as a [nonprofit] sector to not borrow the language of the for-profit sector. [Data sharing is] for the entire sector, spreading the wealth that way”. As a nonprofit, you need to assess if there is a greater value in hoarding your data or in sharing it. If the likelihood of opening your data will result in public good, your organization needs to be willing to share the data and accept that you do not control it.

Collecting Too Much Data
Bill acknowledges the ”fine line of putting up a survey wall between what your [constituents] need and what you need to service them”. This is especially true with online forms and surveys, as it only takes one click to add an additional question.

So its best to think of this as actionable data. A lot of nonprofits like to capture data, such as their donors’ funding interests (medical research, education, area of greatest need), but if the nonprofit does not act on the data then it’s not the right time to collect it. Avoid collecting data that will only end up collecting dust.

Data Cleaning Too Laborious
All nonprofits want big data but often all they have is little, offline data. It’s tough to ask your nonprofit to start entering all the little data you’ve collected (e.g, paper surveys, event feedback, offline donation forms, etc.) for the purpose of sharing it.

Heather suggests nonprofits to ask for help. If your nonprofit is struggling with data entry or data cleaning, consider investing in data entry staff or recruiting more volunteers. Stephanie recommends re-evaluating your technologies, as many nonprofits create work for themselves “when they rely on offline data collecting methods”.

Lack of Compatible Technology
Chances are your nonprofit uses more than one database and they don’t speak to each other. It’s hard to share data with others when your own staff can’t find what they need.

Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all technology solution for your nonprofit, there are ways to mitigate this problem. Choosing compatible solutions before collecting data is a good start. Stephanie shares how Timeraiser uses Eventbrite to capture data because it feeds directly to their CRM database, Salesforce. Eventbrite isn’t the only event management service out there, but because it plays well with Timeraiser’s CRM, Eventbrite is the correct solution for them. Start differentiating between what your nonprofit “wants” and what it “needs”. Sometimes you need to forgo your “wants” in order to better position your nonprofit for success.

I love data sharing!

Awesome. To help foster your love of open data, here are some helpful resources:

About the Movement

Open Data Handbook

Open Data Sources

Government of Canada’s Open Data
Data Hub
Data Catalogs

Like-Minded Individuals & Organizations

Open Knowledge Foundation
Open Knowledge (OK) Conference
Data Kind
Data Analysts for Social Good

We’d also like to mention Heather Leson’s and Stephanie McAllister’s recap of the Net Tuesday event. Be sure to check out their blogs for more information on data sharing!