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Funders and Nonprofits Show Increased Focus on Data and Measurable Progress

by Jodi Petersen
Funders and Nonprofits Show Increased Focus on Data and Measurable Progress
Drawing on our local, national, and international research, tool development, training, and data work, leaders from the Johnson Center have identified 11 key trends that will impact the work of both grantmakers or nonprofit leaders in the months and years to come. In this piece, we explore one of those trends in depth.

Download and read the full report, featuring all 11 trends, here.

Front cover of the “11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2017” reportWhile data are ever present in the hearts and minds of the staff of the Johnson Center, the sector has seen a renewed focus in the last year. Recent issues of The Chronicle of Philanthropy (e.g., Wallace, 2016; Wallace, 2016; Stiffman, 2015) have highlighted how fundraisers are utilizing data to understand what donors want, as well as how funders need to place higher data demands on nonprofits to ensure their funds are resulting in measurable progress.

While we believe that data lead to information that can empower nonprofits and funders to increase their impact, there are several important areas of caution. There must be a continued emphasis on funder-nonprofit relationships, with special attention paid to the creation of shared learning. Resource-scarce nonprofits often feel pressure to only report good news to funders. The increased pressure for data without co-occurring funding for capacity building runs the risk of leading to nonprofits collecting data with poor fidelity or where outcomes and indicators do not match up to activities, resulting in an inability to show measurable progress even when it exists.

Additionally, as the push for measurable progress increases and nonprofits begin collecting more data, they may learn that aspects of their programming that they previously believed to be impactful need tweaking. Often results may be too distal or long term to be amenable to reporting in an annual grant report. This runs the risk of encouraging nonprofits to shrink programming to only that which is measurable in a short time frame in an effort to ensure positive results and better secure future funding. It is important to maintain a focus on feasibility and incremental progress in the effort to increase data availability for decision making.

Jodi Petersen, Ph.D.
Director, Community Research Institute
Dr. Petersen served as director of the Communuity Research Institute (CRI) at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy from 2015–2018.


Wallace, N. (April 2016). Data to the rescue: Smart ways of doing good. The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Wallace, N. (April, 2016). How to cross the data divide. The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Stiffman, E. (January, 2016). What foundations want from grantee evaluations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy.