Why aren’t more mission-driven organizations making better use of data? 

Part 2 in our series on data usage

As I mentioned in a prior blog post, the business case for investing in data and analytics is strong.  Yet even the smartest organizations face barriers in turning inspiring rhetoric about data-informed decision making into meaningful and sustained behavior change. In other words: if you’re often frustrated with the slow speed of progress in building a data-driven culture within your team or organization, you’re not alone (or crazy)!

In our engagements with mission-driven clients, we see the same handful of challenges come up again and again:

The challenges:

Lack of internal data expertise.

Nonprofits rarely have dedicated data scientists. So, most practitioners rely on out-of-the-box reports from Google Analytics and other tools. Alas, these reports typically aren’t tailored to their needs—and, as a result, the data they generate fails to answer key business questions. When this happens, it’s no surprise that data isn’t fully integrated into key decision-making processes. 

 Defensive use of data.

When data isn’t embraced, or seen as relevant on a day-to-day basis, it often ends up being used reactively (and defensively)– for example, in preparation for board meetings or in response to funder requests. Too many managers’ relationship with data is primarily one of risk management. Instead of using data to drive improved performance, some leaders attack or withhold data that suggests a lack of effectiveness in order to retain resources and leadership support.

Data silos across departments and functions.

Across most organizations, significant structural and institutional barriers slow data usage. Different departments own and manage different technical systems, and are held accountable for different organizational mandates. As a result, without a strong push from executive leadership, there isn’t always an incentive to collaborate and pool data. Yet without integrated data or analysis, it’s hard to develop a holistic understanding of how stakeholders are engaging with the organization. 

Reliance on instinct and intuition.

Many nonprofits specialize in direct services that profoundly influence individual lives – often in ways that are hard to quantify. The values that drive some professionals to this sector can be perceived as being in tension with a data-driven culture and mindset (particularly when the latter is thought of as the domain of profit maximization). To the extent this happens, we find it’s because practitioners have yet to benefit from data that actually saves them time or helps them serve the public more effectively.  


So, what can you do about it?

These concerns are very real. But, fortunately, they’re also workable. In our final post in this series, we’ll share practical strategies to overcome these barriers.