Let’s Start Talking about Equitable Data

By: Megan Whalen

Three and a half years ago, I quit my job at a well-respected nonprofit organization and became an independent consultant. It was kind of a fluke; I had been thinking about consulting for a while but thought I needed more experience and a stronger professional network to make it happen. But after several months of trying to survive in a super toxic work environment I decided to quit without having another job lined up. To save face, I told everyone I was leaving to become a consultant. I thought it would buy me some time to figure out my next steps, but within a few months I had three clients and more interest in my work than I ever expected. So here we are.

In the years before I started consulting, I had noticed a worrying dynamic in the nonprofit sector. Only large-budget nonprofits could afford to have a data professional like myself on staff, but all nonprofits were expected to collect and report the same amount and quality data to their funders. Not only were smaller-budget nonprofits losing out on funding because they didn’t have data to include in grant applications, but even when they did receive grant money, they were struggling to keep it because they simply could not report the kinds of information the funders required.

The issue is expecting all organizations to be able to produce quality data when only a handful of organizations have the budget to pay for quality data collection, management, and reporting.  When you consider that organizations run by and for people of color and immigrant communities are more likely to have smaller budgets, it is obvious that the way data is being used in the nonprofit sector is not just problematic, it is a mechanism of inequity.

Here’s the thing: using data to examine the impact of nonprofit work is not inherently bad; I believe that data can and should be used to build our understanding of how well our programs are serving communities. The issue is expecting all organizations to be able to produce quality data when only a handful of organizations have the budget to pay for quality data collection, management, and reporting. When you consider that organizations run by and for people of color and immigrant communities are more likely to have smaller budgets, it is obvious that the way data is being used in the nonprofit sector is not just problematic, it is a mechanism of inequity.

(For a great quick breakdown of the problems with this unequitable use of data, check out this great blog post by Vu Le of Nonprofit AF.)

ML Whalen Consulting is dedicated to confronting this inequity. Most of our clients have been organizations run by and for communities of color and immigrant communities. Race and class equity lenses are incorporated into all facets of our work. We are guided by these truths:

  • We acknowledge our own social location. As white people doing this work, we must remain aware that U.S. society is structured to always center white, middle-class values and perspectives, and top-down power dynamics. We strive to keep whiteness decentered in our work and make sure the perspectives of the communities we serve are central in all projects.
  • Our clients have already proven their impact. We do not need to see quantitative data to know that our clients are doing impactful work. Instead, our job is to use our skillset to help them communicate the impacts they are making in their communities.
  • Our clients are the experts. We have expertise in research methods and data analysis, but we avoid applying top-down solutions. We take time to understand the work being accomplished and the community being served. We collaborate with both leaders and staff members in order to address all data needs. When we build tools to capture funder requirements, we strive to capture two organization-specific metrics for every one funder required metric. In this way, we use our expertise to center community knowledge.

My team and I believe that it’s time to start talking about data in the nonprofit sector.  We plan on using this blog as a way to share tips and tricks for doing nonprofit data, discuss relevant trends in social data, and have critical conversations that encourage changes the way nonprofit data is funded and used. We hope you’ll join us.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Arlem Molina