This article is part of a series that explores the nonprofit data and evaluation trends we are seeing in the sector, and ways in which organizations are using data to better serve their communities. 

More Meaningful and Balanced Data Practices



The burden of data collection and right-fit data collection methods have been long-standing data and evaluation challenges in the nonprofit sector. Historically, nonprofit leaders have found themselves navigating a landscape where satisfying funders took precedence, often leading to data practices that were more about meeting external expectations than serving the needs of a nonprofit’s community and participants.

Now we are hearing nonprofit leaders voice their desire for less-extractive practices. They want something meaningful for themselves and their participants – not just for the funders.

Some of these practices include:

  • Limiting data collection burden.
  • Pushing for values aligned, and resource aligned, data collection methods.
  • Engaging program participants in the question design, collection and sense-making.

What can that look like in practice? Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these.


Limiting data collection burden

There’s often an imbalance of who benefits from the data that funders are asking nonprofits to collect. Funders can tend to get caught up in their own experience, thinking about the information that they need to inform their learning and decision-making, without thinking about the implications of how that will impact a nonprofit’s experience.

For example, we worked with a funder supporting nonprofits with at-risk youth programs, including substance abuse. This funder required all their nonprofit partners to gather data on this issue. While some nonprofits had programs aligned with this strategy, others did not. Those with programs unrelated to substance abuse prevention invested time and resources in collecting data, which they then couldn’t use to support their programming.

From a funder’s perspective, it’s a set of additional questions; for a nonprofit, it’s one among many requests for data from different sources. The added data may benefit the funder, but it’s often a resource strain for nonprofits. It requires additional, and sometimes extensive, time from nonprofit staff and the individuals they are serving with little or no benefit for those individuals.

Nonprofit leaders are now determining they no longer want to accommodate this kind of engagement. Instead, they want to work with their participants to capture only the most essential data – improving participant experience and the relevance of data collected to program improvement.

Pushing for values aligned, and resource aligned, data collection methods

Often data collection practices can feel disruptive to, or disconnected from program participants, and tiresome for staff. Nonprofits are looking for creative ways for their teams to connect with and learn from their communities.

For example, Street Fraternity – a nonprofit that works with young urban men – wanted to understand the difference their organization was making within their community. They wanted to collect data in a way that felt more aligned with the values of their organization. A way that was more consistent with how these young men communicated, and how the organization naturally engaged with their participants. For them, a survey tool was too formal and foreign. We worked with this nonprofit to facilitate a Chalk Talk exercise where the youth participants could reflect on why the program was valuable to them, and what they loved most about it visually and creatively. The approach was more accessible to both the participants and the nonprofit staff, and they were able to get qualitative insights that went deeper into understanding the nuances of the impact the program was having.

Nonprofit leaders are increasingly recognizing the value of different types of data collection – beyond the survey – that are both qualitative and quantitative. They also want funders to understand the value that more versatile data collection methods are providing their organizations.

The Caring for Denver Foundation is a strong example of a foundation supporting data practices that align with their nonprofit partners’ needs. We are helping Caring for Denver implement their model which supports grantee partners in utilizing data collection methods that are a right fit for each organization. Beyond building capacity, this foundation advocates for nonprofits to use methods that can integrate more naturally and feel less burdensome to their participants and staff.

Engaging program participants in question design, collection, and sense-making

Historically, program participants’ engagement in the data process has been limited. Top-down approaches have dominated the sector. Organizations, driven by the need to fulfill funders’ requirements, have designed and implemented data practices without actively involving the individuals directly impacted by the programs.

Recognizing the limitations of this approach, nonprofits are shifting how they engage program participants. There’s a strong emphasis on inclusivity and the co-creation of knowledge.

Take Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) as an example, a nonprofit focused on emergency shelter, street outreach, and supportive services for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. They are taking steps to expand on how they engage program participants as they refine the organization’s Impact Strategy. As part of this effort, we are supporting CVC to conduct a series of focus groups to learn about the perceptions of staff and program participants to better understand the key aspects of their work that are driving change. This approach allows those most directly impacted by the organization’s programs and services to continue to be active contributors to the design of the organizational strategy.



As the nonprofit sector continues to evolve, the emphasis on meaningful and impactful data practices is growing stronger. The shift towards less-extractive methods, values-aligned approaches, and participant engagement signifies a positive transformation that transcends mere compliance with funders, aiming instead for genuine, community-driven impact.