May 14, 2009

Work with the Data

In this commentary on the 2009 Bridgespan Group report, Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits, President and CEO Peter Goldberg of the Alliance for Children and Families emphasizes the need for the nonprofit sector to become more data-driven, and suggests that high-performing organizations should use reports such as Finding Leaders to help inform and develop their strategies.

By: Peter Goldberg

A commentary on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits

The nonprofit sector has grown substantially in size and complexity over the past several decades. Indeed the sector now represents about 7 percent of GDP and 10 percent of the nation’s workforce. There are approximately 12-13 million people employed in nonprofit organizations. This sector is now too large a part of the American economy to be ignored, even by the 90 percent who are not part of it.

While the nonprofit sector has grown past the horse-and-buggy era, information on it and its characteristics is now only beginning to catch up. The development of GuideStar as a data base on nonprofit organizations has been most important. GuideStar provides an important foundation for developing data-driven information about our growing sector that was not previously available or accessible. But any database is just fundamentally inert unless someone—people or organizations—is mining it, massaging it, and analyzing it.

Related Content

Download the report Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits [PDF]

Read the executive summary

Download a collection of the commentaries [PDF]

Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits is grounded in the data; its messages and conclusions are data-driven. As our field grows in size and complexity our understanding of the field needs to be more data-driven, less speculative, less “in my opinion,” and more “according to the data.” It seems to me that you can agree with the data or disagree, but if you disagree, the root of the disagreement ought to be grounded in concerns about how the data was developed, how the data was massaged, or how it was analyzed. High- performing nonprofit organizations are increasingly data-driven.

This report extends, deepens, and generally validates Tom Tierney’s earlier report on the leadership deficit in nonprofit organizations. Consider it the second sounding on your alarm clock snooze button if you overlooked or ignored Tierney’s earlier wake-up call!

The discussion about “cultural fit” between an applicant with a for-profit background and an available leadership position in a nonprofit organization is particularly important. Infusing a nonprofit organization with senior executives drawn from for-profit backgrounds has both tactical and cultural considerations. Without question, those of us associated with Bridgespan believe strongly in the rationale and benefits of proceeding in this way. However, I also applaud Bridgespan for providing both (a) the opportunity for a conceptual and reasoned discussion about this issue; and (b) their guidelines for how to make “bridging” successful for both the bridger and the nonprofit organization.

High-performing nonprofit organizations will use reports such as this to inform their strategies and develop their plans to both sustain high performance over time, and to differentiate themselves from colleagues and competitors who more often ignore or overlook data-driven perspectives than utilize them.

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