The one thing most nonprofits aren’t doing is something we have a moral obligation to do.

Written by Alexandra Mannerings
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In 2017, the Economist ran an article titled, “The world’s most valuable resource is not oil, but data.” So where are nonprofits when it comes to data? One study claims only 46% have the tools in place to measure the impact of their programs. In another survey, fewer than 25% of nonprofit executives prioritized data. 

So the data suggest that nonprofits aren’t stewarding this “most valuable resource” very well. This is not just an operational failure. It is one we have a moral obligation to fix.

Why bring morality into it? Because as stewards of precious resources, we have what I believe is a moral obligation to check our biases, assumptions, and guesses against thoughtful analytics. For example – how do you know that your hiring practices are fair and non-discriminatory unless you compare the data of your community, your applicant pool, and your ultimate employment decisions? Without the real numbers, you are guessing or going on a gut feel that you’re doing the right things. And if we bring bias in the decisions, you can bet we’re bringing bias into our “gut-check” of how we’re doing. 

Let’s take this one step farther. A number of studies and substantial evidence suggest that giving money to deeply impoverished people can substantially improve their short- and long-term wellbeing. Don’t we as nonprofits then have an obligation to know and to show our potential donors that the work we’re doing goes beyond those benefits in some way? Our work needs to be more than a sensible or good-feeling response to a challenge. We must be able to justify spending limited resources in ways that meet or exceed direct payments — and we can only know that if we measure the outcomes from our work.  

Nonprofits are tackling critical issues in our world, striving to make us safer, freer, healthier, happier, more just, more empowered. Using analytics means we can make greater impacts and help our resources work more efficiently. How can we justify that we don’t have time or resources to do that? The smaller our organization, the more limited our resources, the more, not less, we must rely on data to help guide decisions and alert us to a misstep. We don’t have resources to spare wasting on something that is not moving us towards our ultimate goals. 

If you still feel your organization is too small, doesn’t have the technical infrastructure, or simply can’t afford to measure what matters, I’d like to end with a short story. Archie Cochrane was a young Scottish physician in a German prisoner of war camp in WWII. His fellow inmates were struggling with a disease he wasn’t sure how to treat. To figure out how best to stretch the pitiful resources he had at hand, he organized the sufferers into two groups, and gave each group a different treatment. When the data he scratched onto paper scraps tables showed that one group responded better, he was able to put the few reserves he had into getting that treatment for as many men as he could. 

Archie Cochrane had nearly nothing in that camp. He used simple data to find the most impactful use he could to save as many lives as possible. As nonprofits, we have a moral imperative to do the same.

About the Author:

Alexandra Mannerings founded her analytic education and consulting company, Merakinos, to help social enterprises and non-profits harness the power of data. A decade of measuring what matters in low-resource environments from Ghana to India has taught her how to ask impactful questions even if it’s just you in the wilderness. She earned her PhD in Veterinary Science (Epidemiology) from the University of Cambridge, UK, and BSc in Biology from Emory University. She has also run the Data Center at a state hospital association, rowed for the Light Blues, built trails across Colorado parks, and is currently raising two spirited toddlers.