A data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector?

At the end of July, I convened a group of nonprofit sector leaders and influencers to talk about the potential for a data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector.

tl;dr version: There was a lot of interest, but consensus that more “meat on the bone” is needed in order for organizations to know where this could go and where they could fit in. A backbone organization and some initial financial investment are needed to take this first (and future) steps. Join the email list to be a part of future developments. 

Why a data strategy?

The nonprofit sector often struggles to gather and analyze the necessary information necessary to make optimal decisions.

Answering important questions like “Who’s working in this area? Who’s serving population X? Who else could we collaborate with? Who else is funding this work? Who has had success solving Y? What is the baseline data on issue Z?” requires a lot of tedious research, knowledge that’s not written down, or access to costly databases AND results in too many Excel spreadsheets that aren’t shared.

There is currently no organization responsible for developing a plan for nonprofit and social impact data in British Columbia, and different pieces of the puzzle (e.g. data re: fundraising, governmental relations, operations, volunteering, policy advocacy, grant-making) are held by a variety of actors.

New open data policies and practices at the municipal, provincial and federal level represent tremendous opportunities, as do new powerful and inexpensive online tools for analysis and collaboration. By creating a collaborative and coordinated data strategy we can help different stakeholders in the nonprofit sector: grassroots organizations, large agencies, volunteers, policy makers, institutional funders and donors.

The meeting

The timing was a perfect storm (a good one). I had met Michael Lenczner from PoweredbyData earlier this year and knew his work with the Ontario Nonprofit Network on this topic in that province. Michael and I chatted about collaborating on similar work in BC. Michael was planning a trip to BC. We were able to confirm a few key individuals to a specific date. And so invites went out. The rest was a question mark.

There are no natural provincial network/umbrella organizations for which a data strategy is a mission fit. We don’t have the equivalent to the Ontario Nonprofit network. I was convening as an independent consultant interested in emerging trends and issues facing the nonprofit sector. I see strategic use of data and technology as a key pillar of a healthy future nonprofit sector. So I, along with Michael, acted as convenor of nonprofit leadership in BC.

We had participation from Vancouver Foundation, United Way Lower Mainland, Vancity, bc211, Vantage Point, SFU, UBC, BoardVoice, Open Data BC, open data and social innovation leaders with the BC government, and more! I was thrilled with the RSVPs considering it was middle summer. This participant list is obviously not exhaustive of nonprofit sector leadership. It was very Vancouver-centric. But it’s a starting point.

You can see the meeting slides here (not much context if you weren’t there, but you can still check it out) and read summaries of the meeting here (my summary, PDF) and here (summary by participant Michael Davis of BoardVoice). The general consensus was one of interest a feeling that more “meat on the bone” is needed in order for organizations to know where this could go and where they could fit in. A backbone organization and some initial financial investment are needed to take this first (and future) steps.

The future

I look forward to seeing where this goes. As I emphasized at the meeting, as an independent actor I don’t have the positional/organizational authority to strategize on behalf of the nonprofit sector. Sector leadership needs to buy in and own in order for this to move forward at all. BUT I would love to play a role in bridging the BC context with strategic data thinking, and to collaborate with the thought leadership that Michael Lenczner and PoweredbyData brings to this topic.

Does data interest you? Join the email list to be a part of future development. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to chat or are interested in investing in this process.

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