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5 Nonprofits Using Big Data To Measure And Improve Effectiveness

10 December, 2013

5 Nonprofits Using Big Data To Measure And Improve Effectiveness

Much of the buzz generated about big data has focused on the insights businesses can garner from big data, but big data also has a lot of potential for the nonprofit sector. The very purpose of a nonprofit organization is to offer some kind of benefit or support to others. Whether its humanitarian efforts in Africa, providing educational opportunities to low-income families or providing aid after natural disasters, nonprofits can make a huge contribution. However, there are also times when good intentions go awry and nonprofits, for some reason or another, fail to make a difference or in some cases actually have a negative impact. Most of the time nonprofits aren’t aware of the real impact they are having because they don’t have the data available to them.

Now, as big data tools become more accessible and affordable through cloud services, such as Hadoop as a Service, nonprofits are using the power of big data to measure and improve their efforts. Here’s a look at five of them.

1. Nurse-Family Partnerships

The goal of Nurse-Family Partnerships is to help poor, first time mothers care for themselves and their newborn child, so they can both go on to live healthy lives. In order to ensure that they meet this objective, the nurses that visit each family keep track of the development of both mother and child by documenting thousands of data points for each child. The organization is then able to use this data to determine changes that need to be made to the program to increase positive outcomes and to recognize and respond to a spike of problems quickly.

2. Youth Villages

Youth Villages seeks to help at-risk youth who would otherwise be placed in juvenile detention or other places outside of their home to be able to have successful lives with their own families or in certain cases with a foster family or adoptive parents. The program measures its success based off of whether the child is living happily in their home 6 months, 12 months and 2 years after leaving the program. The nonprofit uses the data gathered to adapt their program and improve weaknesses in the system.

3. U.N.

Dealing with world-wide problems is a huge undertaking, so it makes sense that the U.N. would be one of the first organizations to start using big data to predict and manage crises around the world. The organization created the Global Pulse initiative which monitors the social data being created all over the world for indications of certain events. For example, the project identified that mentions of cutting back on groceries or using the bus indicated that an unemployment spike was coming. Another project identifies weather patterns that could affect businesses, so those companies can adjust their plans and avoid a negative impact on the economy.

4. Benetech

Benetech is a nonprofit that focuses on providing books for persons with disabilities from blindness to dyslexia. The company collects and analyzes data on the participants in its programs as well as which materials are used the most to find ways to improve their service as well as to look for new insights on particular handicaps. The company also hopes to gain broader insights into what motivates students to learn and what factors may cause them to abandon learning.

5. Virginia Department of Education

The Virginia Department of Education is using big data to create more accountability within the school system and to create more effective policy decisions. One area of the project involved identifying the particular characteristics of high school graduates that go on to be successful at the university level. Having access to this kind of information is critical to setting criteria for our schools, but until big data analysis, criteria was often decided based on gut feelings not hard data.

Adopting big data won’t be easy for many nonprofits that are limited on funds and whose donors may see it as an overhead cost, but as donors realize that they can have hard data showing their money is making a big difference, nonprofit evaluation based on real results will become more common. In fact, Charity Navigator, a site that rates nonprofit organizations has started using how nonprofits report the results of their work as their main criteria for the ratings system. It seems big data can contribute to social good just as much to higher profit margins.

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