Building Back Better: A case for data in the not-for-profit sector

By: Dr Ioana Ramia   |   Research fellow and lecturer, Centre for Social Impact, UNSW

If there’s one thing we know about data-driven organisations, it’s that they are perceived to be better at managing, monitoring, and organising their resources, activities, and results. They can also demonstrate to clients, funders and partners the contribution they make to the economy, society, or environment. But this is not an easy exercise for many not-for-profits because it requires significant capacity, resources, and capabilities to do so. Often resources for data reporting, collection or analysis are not included in the funding not-for-profits receive and margins are thin and therefore they often don’t have separate resources to undertake this work thoroughly.

So how about a data-driven sector? In the past few years, the efforts to measure across the not-for-profit sector have increased, but often these efforts can be siloed to sub-sections of the sector or discrete research projects. For example, we know that charities are invaluable to filling in gaps in the system, the top three reasons for accessing charity services being the cost of living pressures, housing pressures and homelessness, and inadequacy of income support payment (Cortis and Blaxland 2020). In addition, we know charities also provide services that people, communities and governments rely on. They provide education, health care, sports and recreation, legal services, arts and culture and more, and almost half of the charities registered with the ACNC report their main beneficiary is the general community in Australia (ACNC 2020). Charities are also major economic players, making a considerable contribution to the economy, equivalent to 8.5% of Australia’s GDP (Deloitte 2017) and employing 1.3 million people or 1 in 10 in the labour force in Australia (ACNC 2020).

2020 has been one of the most difficult years in living history. In Australia, in between our bushfires and the 2020 pandemic, the work of not-for-profits has been critical to the society and the economy and this has been documented to some extent. 

Community services organisations reported in the first half of 2020 significant increases in demand for advice and referral services, food relief, housing and homelessness services, mental health, and financial counselling (Our Community 2020). The recent events, however, had unprecedented effects on charities, threatening their capacity to respond, now and in the future, to increased demand (SVA and CSI 2020). These extraordinary circumstances have given us the opportunity to investigate the health of the sector and the recent efforts to evidence the sector are remarkable and valuable on their own. But some remaining issues we need to consider:

  1. How should data collection be resourced, and the sector supported to collect it with ease? and
  2. How can data be reported back to the sector in ways that are useable and useful to contribute to policy, advocacy, and growth?

To truly understand a highly varied and complex sector, a rounded and ongoing data collection process is necessary. It is essential to develop a robust data set that includes perspectives and insights of anyone that is aiming to work ‘for good’ in Australia. The Pulse of the For-Purpose Sector Survey is a survey that can be distributed and analysed regularly to observe trends across the sector over time. It evidences the viability, capacity, and resourcing of the sector, how they respond and react under the changing context. By surveying the entire for-purpose sector - not-for-profits, social enterprises, corporate social responsibility departments and philanthropy – we can get a better sense of where there are shared pain points as well as opportunities for change. By regularly surveying organisations about their current operating conditions and attitudes towards policy, we can also start building a strong evidence base to advocate for change with data-driven arguments and solutions.

Furthermore, it is essential to build capacity to improve impact, through creating a Charities Transformation Fund to transition organisations to the ‘new normal’, and support further research to better understand how to build back the charities sector so that they are funded for impact. Not-for-profits are often required to monitor their impact, yet an evaluation budget is often limited or absent.

Ongoing and rounded data collection and support for data collection will assist not-for-profits, the charity sector, communities, funders, and government with:

  1. A full set of data, across the sector and across key aspects to provide a comprehensive picture of the sector, including how it operates, what it achieves, for whom (and much more)
  2. Regular data collection to ensure continuity of measurement, tracking of progress, capacity to advocate and inform policy
  3. Capacity of not-for-profits to demonstrate their impact and communicate to funders, clients, partners their contribution to social change.

Australia has never kept track of its for-purpose sector in this way. By collecting and analysing information from our for-purpose sector, we know we can build back better.

If you’d like to support our work in supporting our for-purpose sector with a rigorous, ongoing research project, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch at csi@unsw.edu.au.

You can read more about the project here.

Aug. 26, 2020

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