As nonprofit organizations increasingly use data in their day-to-day work, from donor outreach to fundraising, it is important to create an environment in which every team member knows how to make sense of that data.

Data literacy—the ability to read, interpret, visualize, and effectively communicate with data—is key to advancing your nonprofit’s mission

When every rower on a boat knows how to use their power and energy efficiently, that boat will be in a position to cross the finish line more quickly.

Similarly, when every member of your nonprofit team knows how to use and make the most of data, your organization will be better positioned to make a greater impact.

Cultivating data literacy within your organization is a process. Here we look at some ways to get started, but first, let’s look at the importance of data literacy within nonprofit organizations.

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Why Nonprofit Data Literacy Is Important

The work of nonprofit organizations has a very real impact on the communities they serve.

Data influences this impact by informing decisions—whether that’s how to raise more money, improve programming, or engage better with donors. 

While data literacy is imperative for staff in specific roles and departments, cultivating this skill set throughout the organization has its benefits, too. 

Data is only as rich as the individuals interpreting it. Your development director will see patterns on a dataset differently from your fundraisers, for example. 

Someone from community relations, who may have a personal connection to your organization’s cause, may be able to contribute insights that someone from marketing—without that personal link—wouldn’t have thought of.

Data literacy is an asset, one that is enriched by the diverse professional and personal backgrounds of your team. Being able to make data-driven decisions also helps team members be more effective in their work. 

Communicating with data can enhance confidence, and seeing the effectiveness of data first-hand can create a sense of ownership over projects and the organization as a whole.

Externally, data visualization skills can come in handy when communicating with donors, board members, and even the public. It can be useful in conveying your organization’s impact and convincing prospective donors to support your cause. 

The list goes on.

Let’s look at several ways to cultivate data literacy within your nonprofit organization.

6 Ways to Cultivate Data Literacy Within Your Nonprofit

1. Discuss What Data Literacy Really Means

Data skills may come more naturally to team members who already work closely with donor data and reports. For others, it might seem like an abstract and niche skill to master.

So, it helps to start by keeping things simple.

First: define data literacy and break down what it entails.

Data literacy involves three primary skills: 

  • Understanding and interpreting data
  • Visualizing data
  • Communicating with data. 

Asking questions is part of seeking to understand data. What do the numbers suggest? Does the data reveal patterns or a trend? What insights can one learn from it? 

Understanding data means having a framework for how one segment of information relates to another. Being able to visualize these relationships is another skill. 

Numbers and tables can be overwhelming (and dull), so it helps to turn them into something digestible and easily understandable. This typically involves some basic design skills.

Finally, communicating with data is equally important. This goes beyond stating interpretations and trends and includes telling stories to bring data to life or making stories more compelling by backing them up with data. 

Now, it’s essential to communicate the essence of these skills. Helping your nonprofit team understand the significance of data literacy will help them understand how it fits within their respective roles. 

From here, you can help your team identify ways to use data in their day-to-day work—or involve them in projects that use these skills. 

2. Highlight Data Literacy’s Benefits

Knowing the ins and outs of an Excel spreadsheet or watching line charts climb and dip on Google Analytics may sound appealing to some, but not so much to others. 

Instead of emphasizing technical skills, another way to get your team on board is to highlight the benefits of data literacy

Having a measure of data literacy helps improve judgment. Reviewing data and gathering insights can inspire creative ideas and lead to refined, targeted strategies. 

It also helps professionals become better communicators and turns good communicators into great ones by using data to make more compelling stories. This is especially helpful when communicating with philanthropists, donors, and stakeholders, as well as the wider community your organization is serving. 

Not to mention: in a data-driven world, data skills are certainly in high demand.

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3. Acknowledge The Learning Curve

It’s helpful to acknowledge that people have varying levels of comfort when working with data. We’re all along with different parts of the learning curve, so it’s essential to be considerate and encouraging.

Be open about the fact that it’s OK to have different starting points. Let people know they’re not expected to become data scientists overnight—or at all. But they are expected to have a basic level of competency. It helps to set goals and deadlines in this regard, too.

Team members need to understand the value of data literacy in advancing your mission. They need to know that management is committed to cultivating data skills to help staff be more effective in their roles. 

That said, consider conducting assessments to get a better sense of where your team is on the data literacy scale. This can be as formal as an actual skills assessment or something simpler, like a survey or poll. 

Having this information will help you map out concrete ways to help improve your team’s data literacy.

4. Map Out A Training Plan

Once you have a sense of your team’s data capabilities, be intentional moving forward. 

Would quarterly workshops for different departments be helpful? Might a self-paced online course work instead? 

Perhaps you’ll try one-on-one coaching sessions? Or incorporate a data literacy workshop into your onboarding process?  

Don’t forget to think about what a successful training plan would look like. How will you track your team’s progress? How will you measure their data literacy skills at the end of a workshop cycle?

Will there be incentives or rewards? Are there fundraisers or campaigns you could tie these workshops to, so that staff can immediately apply what they’re learning?

Identifying your ‘starting point’—where your organization currently falls on the scale of data literacy—establishing goals, and mapping out a plan will help manage your efforts at improving your team’s data literacy

5. Be Mindful Of The Data Tools and Language You Use

Many data tools exist at our disposal, and while we’re free to experiment with as many of them as we wish, it’d be more effective to focus on a few essentials. 

When it comes to using data tools, quality is better than quantity. 

Keeping in mind your team’s skill levels, consider starting with the basics: Excel, Google Sheets, Google Analytics. Apps like Canva are great for data visualization. From there, you can gradually level up to more sophisticated programs and software that are commensurate with your nonprofit team’s needs, skills, and operations.. 

Also, be mindful of the language you’re using when engaging with data. Refrain from jargon and anything else that could make things confusing. The key is to focus on the essentials and avoid overwhelming your team as they learn essential new skills. 

6. Model The Importance Of Data Literacy From The Top

When it comes to getting buy-in from your organization, actions certainly speak louder than motivational speeches. And it’s particularly impactful when it starts from the C-suite. 

To convince your staff of the importance of data literacy, demonstrate its value every way you can. 

Incorporate data while planning your next fundraiser. Use data visualizations during meetings and in reports. Share data-driven insights with board members and stakeholders. 

Implement classes or skills-focused sessions and attend them with colleagues. Encourage teams to apply these skills in their day-to-day work. Celebrate small wins. 

The more they see management lead and operate with data, the likelier they’ll want to do so, too. 

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Cultivate A Data-Driven Culture

Nonprofit data literacy training is a continuous process. 

So play for the long game: cultivate an environment in which data skills can be learned and where the learning process can be enjoyed. 

  • Help make data accessible to staff. Encourage them to use it and to ask questions as they do. Get them to interrogate data sources, and question the analysis or interpretations that have been made. 
  • Make it a salient part of your operations: use data visualizations during board meetings, team check-ins, company-wide show-and-tell, fundraisers, stakeholder meetings, onboarding processes, and reports.
  • Incorporate data in hiring processes, decision-making, goal-setting, strategizing, and planning. 
  • Use data in storytelling, donor outreach, media relations, and campaigns. 

More than anything else, creating a data-powered and data-driven culture is a surefire way to help improve your nonprofit team’s data literacy.  

What is Fundraising KIT?

Every nonprofit team member will encounter data in some form in their work. Like a rower utilizing their power and energy as efficiently as they can, that team member can approach this data for insights, decision-making, and action. How much data literacy that team member has will determine how much impact their next step could make.

This is why nonprofit data literacy training is worth the investment for everyone involved—from the community you serve to each individual putting in the work.

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