Data – Can We Call It Salvation?

October 30, 2018

It is comforting to believe we know ourselves, our community, the universe, and our place in it. How else could we get out of bed every morning? That said, we must admit that much of our knowledge is inherited or built on an imperfect (and sometimes dangerous) foundation of experience and a priori reasoning.

a priori (a pri-o-ri): relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge that proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience.

This is what excites me about data. Can we call it salvation? When collected and analyzed properly, data removes our subjectivity and can offer a neutral, reliable view of the world – if only a miniscule slice of it. Data is the heart of COA’s performance and quality improvement standards, and drives human service providers to continually monitor performance and investigate flagging or abnormal measures. Being deep in the data revolution, we now have unprecedented access to data about the world outside of ourselves and our organizations – critical for human service providers who have a special mandate to know and respond to the communities they serve.

The following are some of my favorite sources of public data relevant to human service providers. May you find refuge and transformation within them!

Data USA

The U.S. government collects lots of data. Lots of it. And most of it is publicly available – though likely raw, disorganized, and inaccessible to anyone without the skills to process it. Data USA connects to these sources of government data and makes them consumable by all:

  • Natural-language generation translates data into plain, simple statements; each page feels authored by a human hand.
  • Beautiful visualizations show trends over time or communicate complex datasets.

There’s a whole lot here, too: data on universities, colleges, and education opportunities; demographic data on cities, counties, ZIP codes, and states; job and employment data; medical and healthcare data; and more. Enter in your city’s name and see what happens. But Data USA does something remarkable by using its data to create local, state, or national benchmarks. For example, its natural-language generation algorithm produces this statement about Polish speakers in Chicago, IL:

When compared to other census places, Chicago, IL has a relatively high number of residents that are native Polish speakers. In 2015, there were 49,464 native Polish speakers living in Chicago, IL, approximately 9.4 times more than would be expected based on the language’s frequency in the U.S. more broadly.

Honestly, there is so much here. I recommend setting aside 30 minutes to deeply explore this unbelievable service.

How can human service providers use this data?

Research the demographic profile of your city, state, or ZIP code to ensure your client engagement practices are culturally nuanced. Are your materials translated into all local languages? Is there an area of the city more likely occupied by your target clients and so more deserving of time and resources?

Compare your client demographic data to the demographics of your service area. Is it possible that one or more groups are missing out on your services?

Dropdown screenshot

Use the compare function to analyze the differences between your service communities; to compare locations, click the icon shown below and select another location for comparison.

Individuals seeking services have often been fighting a long, lonely battle. Bolster your intake process by sharing relevant community data with service recipients to contextualize and destigmatize their experience. For example, a substance use treatment program could use the Excessive Drinking Prevalence measure found in the Risky/Harmful Behaviors section when serving individuals struggling with alcohol dependency.

Learn about basic measures of health and safety such as insurance coverage, medicare enrollment, and prevalent health conditions via the Health & Safety section of each location page.

Discover broader economic trends like this chloropleth on the poverty rate by county across the nation.

Nonprofit Finance Fund’s State of the Sector Survey

Since 2009, the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) has run the State of the Sector survey to engage nonprofit organizations across the nation about their financial security and beyond: challenges facing their organization and their clients, opportunities they see in the next year, their use of program metrics and outcomes data, and more.

The 2018 survey results were affirming and surprising in equal measure. I’m not surprised that offering competitive pay is a top challenge reported by respondents, but that 67% felt the U.S. government made their clients’ lives harder? That’s shocking.

Want more? Tiffany Langston, Associate Director of Knowledge & Communications at NFF, provided a wonderful synopsis of the report, its function, and their findings in Data for Change: Nonprofit Leaders Raise Their Voices about the State of the Sector.

How can human service providers use this data?

Benchmarks are woefully scarce in the nonprofit/human service sector. Compare your organization’s performance to other nonprofits using many of the financial health measures found throughout the report. And, use the filters at the top to narrow the results to organizations like yours.

Start a conversation by reviewing the survey data with your team as either an element of your annual/strategic planning or simply as a team building exercise. Pause and reflect on each relevant question: what is the state of your organization and how could this impact your ability to deliver quality services? Do the findings reflect your neck of the woods? Why or why not?

Have an honest conversation about your organization’s theory of change, logic model, or outputs and outcomes measures. Are you, like 41% of respondents, operating without a theory of change or logic model? Do you, like 21% of respondents, not collect outcomes measures? How will this impact your ability to win grants in the future?

Leverage this data in conversations with policy makers and funders. Does your organization, like 60% of relevant respondents, receive late payments from your state? How does this inhibit or complicate your operations?

United States Census Bureau

The majority of the data output from the Census Bureau is aimed at researchers and other government entities and often not presented in an easily-consumable form. I recommend joining the Census Bureau’s mailing list for regular updates on gems like The Opportunity Atlas. This interactive map shows “the average outcomes (e.g., earnings) of children who grew up in each neighborhood in America, by demographic subgroup (race, gender, and parental income).”

Their Infographics & Visualizations page also has several interesting offers.

How can human service providers use this data?

Basic data on the communities served by human service organizations often reaffirm what front-line staff already know. But, being able to communicate these characteristics using hard data from respected institutions like the Census Bureau can bolster grant proposals, marketing collateral, and appeals to donors.

Forms 990 Data

How could we not talk about that shining ray of transparency, the Form 990? Let’s go beyond GuideStar and look at some fascinating services utilizing and transforming this data into information.

Citizen Audit

Citizen Audit makes the Form 990 look good. Traditional Form 990 data is accessible within a modern search interface and without learning what each schedule means (that’s 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back).


Another beautiful interface for exploring Form 990 data. The layout is a bit simpler than Citizen Audit and shows a year by year comparison of all relevant data points by default.

ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer

Though less feature-rich than the services above, ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer provides quick and easy access to the text or raw XML versions of an organization’s Form 990 – great if you’re hunting for something in particular and want to execute a single page find across all data.

IRS Master Business File

For you pros out there, the IRS provides a download of all tax-exempt entities. These worksheets, divided into geographic regions (you can also download state-specific versions), contains the most recent Form 990 data on all tax-exempt entities.

How can human service providers use this data?

Benchmarks, benchmarks, benchmarks. Surely you are benchmarking your organization’s financial health against your past performance, but what about your peers? Dig up data on local organizations providing similar services and see how you compare.

Ask questions like:

  • How are our financial ratios compared to our competitors?
  • How does our CEO’s wage compare to other nonprofits like ours?
  • We have 35 board members. Is that normal?

Find other organizations across the country providing similar services (for benchmarking or collaboration) using the NTEE code. The IRS categorizes all tax-exempt entities using this code; it’s a three character code where the first character, a letter, indicates the broad service area while 2 following digits reflect a narrower categorization of services. Find your NTEE code (most human service organizations have a P or F as the leading character), then find others with that same code and a similar revenue size. Use the resources above to dig into their 990 data.

Learn the ins and outs of your own organization – the 990 is typically comprehensive and is always a rewarding read. You might be surprised about what you discover!

Have you utilized any helpful data resources? If so, feel free to share them with us in the comments section!

These recommendations herein are those of the author; they do not constitute a formal endorsement by the Council on Accreditation.


About COA

Founded in 1977, the Council on Accreditation (COA) is an international, independent, nonprofit organization that accredits human and social service providers. Our mission is to partner with human and social service organizations to strengthen their ability to improve the lives of the people they serve.