Data Driven Nonprofits Book Review

Data Driven Nonprofits is billed as a guidebook for nonprofit organizations that want to use data more efficiently in order to make smarter organizational decisions about what they should be doing and where they should be going.  Steve MacLaughlin is Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and he has over 20 years of experience in the field, so he knows his stuff.  More importantly, perhaps, is that he knows a lot of people and has probably worked with hundreds of organizations so he’s able to pinpoint his message and accurately speak to the concerns and challenges that many nonprofits are facing today.  So is Data Driven Nonprofits worth your time and money? 

There is not a single job in the nonprofit field today that doesn’t, somehow, involve using data to fulfill the organization’s mission.  Every stable or growing nonprofit organization has one or more databases containing a multitude of information containing bits of information like past donor names and addresses, gift details, prospecting reports on potential donors, actions performed in the past and thousands of other fields and tables of facts and figures.  But as the prevalence of databases, computer power and information gathering tools have exploded over the last 30 years there is a growing feeling that we’re all working harder for this new data but we’re not necessarily working smarter.

That’s where Data Driven Nonprofits comes in.  MacLaughlin’s book takes use through a series of chapters detailing the history, promises, pitfalls and ultimate challenges that we have when we’re presented with millions and millions of pieces of information… and we have to find a way to fund a $20 million project in the next 12 months. 

This is not a book filled with math equations and database tricks you can use and, as a Director of Advancement Services, I was initially disappointed in this.  I wanted a series of magic formulas I could put into a query or a spreadsheet that would give me everything I wanted.  That’s how a lot of us data people work.  This book has no such recipes.

But it’s actually better than a recipe book.  This is a “cooking” book about data.  It doesn’t show you exactly how to make anything specific, but instead it gives you lots and lots of angles and stories about how other people and organizations were able to meet the very same data challenges most nonprofits deal with every day.  This book does a pretty good job of giving you a larger picture beyond the spreadsheet.  It doesn’t simply give you a recipe for success, it tries to teach you how to create your own recipe for success.

Steve MacLaughlin

Make no mistake, MacLaughlin is a data nerd (in the best sense) but he’s also an engaging storyteller and his writing is easy to read. I actually had the chance to hear Steve MacLaughlin talk at a few professional conferences and he’s just as down-to-earth and in-touch with data as he comes across in the book.

MacLaughlin’s Data Driven Nonprofits can easily be divided into two sections.  The short first section of seven or so chapters is a breezy but fact-filled journey through history and the current data climate today, looking at where we’ve been with data collection and where we are now.  It’s filled with interesting facts and a few figures and though it reads quickly it’s also pretty dense with information.  I have found myself going back and re-reading whole chapters (and enjoying it!) just make sure I’m wrapping my head around a concept again.

The second, and longer, section of the book breaks out some of the challenges nonprofit organizations will face as they try to use data in their overall strategy.  MacLaughlin writes about having (or being) a data champion at your organization, he writes about changing the data culture, being willing to change and test things over and over.  With each topic he interviews various people within successful organizations who figured how to meet the challenge at hand.  I didn’t personally relate to all of these people and their struggles, but on balance the stories they share are worth reading. 

As a data nerd I didn’t find this section as engaging at first, but after letting it sit in my mind for a bit I realize this is really the more valuable section.  Data and reporting and analytics don’t exist in a vacuum: they’re just another facet of an organization filled with people who have different understandings of the world.   As an Advancement Services professional I know the power of data and what we can do with it, but sharing that knowledge and having it built into the culture and strategy building decisions of an organizations are much more difficult tasks.

Data Driven Nonprofits is a valuable book and one which could (and should) be read by almost anyone working in any position of a nonprofit.  Though published in 2016 most of the advice and information is pretty timeless and will still be very relevant regardless of the fast pace of changing technology. Nonprofit executives would find a lot of inspiring and exciting stories, front end fundraisers would begin to understand the power of data and might be more willing to talk to their data people about some of the concepts in this book.  As one of the “data people” the book stands out a good overview of our profession, but also gives us some good strategies to help us be heard at the table. 

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