“The best way to advocate for and deliver on mission is with facts and examples,” said Jen Bokoff. “Data tied to issues–qualitative and quantitative–strengthens an organization’s point of view.” Bokoff understands the power of big data because in her role as Director of Knowledge Services for Foundation Center she and her team use data daily to help a global lattice of nonprofit organizations become technologically competitive. “We are a home for… knowledge that organizations can use to support their work,” she explained.

Founded in 1956, the New York City-based organization is a “knowledge bank” for the nonprofit sector, and boasts the largest database of global grantmakers and funding activity. As part of their mission to advance data-driven innovation, Foundation Center facilitates research, training, and technology education programs at more than 450 hubs located at libraries and universities across the country.

SEE: Big data policy (Tech Pro Research)

“Nonprofit organizations [are sometimes] staffed by people not naturally inclined to seek out data,” said Bokoff. “It’s a bit of a foreign idea and [many nonprofits] are not necessarily coming at data in a systematic way. We believe [data] is core to solving problems in our world, but it’s not the intuitive solution to most of the actors in this field.”

Foundation Center teaches and advocates for data-driven decision-making, Bokoff said, because data encourages institutional transparency, a fundamental principle of most nonprofits and many companies. “We use the data to inform key questions–who’s funding what, and where? How can I know what others know? How can we make the most of what we’re learning?–because we believe that data is essential [in order] to have a positive impact on issues and communities.”

The organization’s physical presence is backed up by data.foundationcenter.org, a massive nonprofit database accessible via web applications and APIs. Two apps in particular, Foundation Directory Online and Foundation Maps, include granular grantmaker profiles and information used for prospect research and identifying collaborators, Bokoff explained.

“We also contract with foundations and associations… to build custom knowledge products around issue- or strategy-specific questions,” she said. A project funded by the Knight Foundation, for example, will mine data to identify funding that supports libraries, both from the federal government and from foundations. Foundation Center will provide a public-facing map of library data with supporting resources.

WATCH: Documentary shows information revolution of big data (CBS News)

Foundation Center advocates interaction between large and small nonprofits. “Big organizations collaborate with smaller organizations all the time!” Bekoff said. “Especially in place-based work or work with specific populations, large funders or organizations find local partners to implement strategies.” The Never Alone video game, for example, encourages indigenous education, and the Piper Fund studies the role of special interest groups in politics. “On a local level, City Harvest in New York City partners both with bigger national organizations and also with hyper-local community organizations on food rescue and healthy neighborhoods initiatives. There are so many types of collaborations that we [provide] a Nonprofit Collaboration Database.”

Bokoff and her colleagues Larry McGill and Jake Garcia explained the role of big data in nonprofits and how all organizations–including SMBs and enterprise companies–can benefit from transparency and cross-organization collaboration.

In what way is big data shaping the nonprofit space?

With often limited resources, nonprofits need to maximize and double down on efforts that are likely to succeed. With fundraising in particular, a strategic review of field-wide data significantly helps organizations target proposals to well-aligned, appropriate foundations.

How should organizations with limited resources adopt technology and big data strategies?

While we don’t formally offer advice… since every situation is a little different, we can say that most importantly organizations need to recognize why they exist and how essential technology is to helping their mission and constituency. In many cases, making the right technology investments can help operations immensely, but in other cases, it may actually create challenges or be overkill.

Really thinking about what the goal of new technology would be can help inform key questions, like: Do we build it or do we buy it? Are we better off partnering with another organization? How much do we need to worry about privacy and hacking? What integrations would we need to make new technology make sense in our current arrangement?

For organizations where technology is a huge part of their work, make sure you hire and develop staff skills to properly implement and maintain that technology. Without the right set of ethics and skills in house, it’s very hard to make a nonprofit technology effort work.

Can you help us understand the future of nonprofit big data?

It’s a world in which the pace of new data is only going to increase; there’s more and more of it in different forms every day. This means that organizations need to have skills for data analysis, such as programming, visualization, and statistics, in house and not just externally. With this, organizations also need to develop a sensibility about how data connect and influence, and how to leverage this understanding towards mission.

SEE: IT leader’s guide to Agile development (Tech Pro Research)

With the understanding that everything that is or can be digitized is data … organizations [will] start to mine data to learn about their audiences, their approaches, and the context of the world around them. The fact that we still have “longstanding problems” — those very societal challenges that nonprofit organizations are set up to address — means we still have more work to do, and big data might well be a lever to creating change.

With shifting governments and policies worldwide, the nonprofit sector often must recalibrate to address gaps. Data illuminates and informs the roles that nonprofits could be positioned to play.

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