Big Data and The Nonprofit Organization


I’m a little bit behind on the hot topic of Big Data, but I’ve been meaning to write about it for awhile, and just got… busy. It’s maybe less of a hot topic now than a month or few months ago, but I don’t think it’s being talked about enough when it comes to it’s role in the nonprofit industry.

We mostly hear about Big Data coming out of the Silicon Valley and Facebook. The information Facebook has on it’s users is astounding, frightening even. The ads on my Facebook sidebar are a fairly accurate depiction of the things I’d actually be interested in – free trades if I join E-TradeHuman Rights Campaign, MBA scholarship opportunities, etc… My posts about starting grad school, social liberalism, and my involvement in the stock markets have made their mark, whether I intended them to or not. Every search we make online is recorded, and companies are using Big Data to profit Big Time.

That’s all well and good, I’m putting myself out there on the internet, let them use whatever information they want to extract. But how can nonprofits get in on this action? Nonprofits won’t just start marketing hiking boots to people who love the outdoors. It’s not so simple.

I work for a social services nonprofit. We provide direct services to our target populations and we collect a fair amount of demographics on them. For example, in terms of fighting hunger, we register the income of families and level of hunger insecurity. We can compare this to ourselves overtime to see if there has been any improvement; now with more prolific information available, we can also compare it to wider statistics across San Diego County or across the nation. Sure, that’s a basic example and frankly, those kind of reports have been coming out of nonprofits for a long time since hunger is such a significant force in the industry.

Especially awareness and advocacy is a realm within the nonprofit industry that can benefit from the use of Big Data. Harvard Business Review discusses how international information gathered about human rights abuses can bring about truth that would otherwise remain under the radar. Also, in terms of gauging literacy not only locally, but nationally and globally as well.

Big Data shows where social services are falling short and where they are succeeding. It shows what funds are being used most effectively so that donors and prospective donors can make intelligent choices so that $1 today creates a bigger impact than $1 yesterday.

The unfortunate part of this story, however, is that many nonprofits won’t have the opportunity to utilize Big Data. Many will likely admit the benefit, but simply don’t have the resources to spend time, money, and energy on it. Donors and volunteers want their contributions to go to immediate needs, not long-term innovation. The fact that most nonprofits are entirely volunteer-run, with zero personnel, doesn’t help the case either. For this, nonprofits are always going to be a step behind corporations. Facebook will always have the upper leg on Big Data than any nonprofit organization, no matter how big.

Big Data has to be publicly available to everyone. Companies, organizations, individuals can all decide to use it in order to boost profits, raise awareness, provide services, the options are endless. But if Big Data remains to be an asset only to those that can afford it, it’s benefit to the nonprofit industry may never be realized.

posted in BusinessEconomicsNonprofitSocial Sciences by 

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