What Data to Collect & How to Collect It


  • Time: 1.5 hours (5 introduction, 55 teaching, 25 activity, 5 wrap-up)
  • Objectives
    • Understand what data is important to your organization and the impact you are attempting to achieve
    • Learn how to collect and store data according to industry standards


  • Write down how your organization currently measures impact: What data do you collect for this measurement? Where does that data come from? Where do you store it? If you don’t already collect data to measure impact or you aren’t sure what your organization does towards measuring impact, write down what you think you should be measuring. 
  • After a couple minutes, with a partner, explain to each other what you’ve written and highlight any gaps in your knowledge or areas where you think your organization can improve. Consider sharing major insights with the group.

Let’s Talk All Things Data and Impact

All organizations, regardless of being for-profit or not-for-profit, have to show proof of concept at some point in time. For a for-profit, maybe this is the amount of sales made or number of new customers reached – usually easy-to-define metrics that naturally flow from the purpose of the company. Nonprofits, on the other hand, often have impact in more nuanced ways. Yes, you could measure the number of clothes donated or money raised, but how do you measure lives changed or community reached? This section aims to help nonprofits figure out the answer to this question, and begin the broader process of this entire module on measuring impact, through thinking about what data to collect, how to collect that data, and how to store that data.

What data should I collect?

The opening question to this section might seem a little daunting considering the amount of data nonprofits engage with on a daily basis, as well as the amount of different groups invested in their work. Yet, by breaking down this massive ecosystem through a couple of questions, the process can become much clearer. We suggest that a nonprofit aiming to measure their impact should begin by asking the following questions:

What is our mission? What do we do to achieve that mission?

Before even considering what data is important to collect, it is critical that you as an organization first understand and are able to clearly articulate what you are aiming to achieve through your work, as this will then provide the basis upon which to evaluate your success. Having a short mission statement outlining your work makes it easy to translate that into a quantifiable question: if your mission is to increase youth literacy in your community through tutoring sessions taught by local volunteers, you can then ask the main question of are we increasing literacy rates?

What metrics underlie that mission?

Outside of this main mission statement, there are a myriad of other metrics that underlie your work as an organization. For example, if you are a homelessness organization aiming to provide meals in a certain community, some metrics could be the number of meals served, the number of returning individuals to your services, and the number of staff it took to complete that work. Mapping out the ecosystem of your work and the different individuals and data involved in those areas of focus is incredibly helpful to defining what your metrics are, so we suggest taking the time to do that as well.

How much money do we spend to achieve that mission?

As anyone who works in a nonprofit understands, money is vital to the continuation and success of their programming. And often, this funding is being provided by donors who want to ensure that their dollars are going to be put to good use. Many want to see the translation of dollars given into lives saved or meals served or classes taught – aka, measurable impact. Thus, having strong financial data on everything your program is doing will help when you begin to analyze your data, which we will get to in a later unit of this workshop.

Who is invested in this mission?

This last question could also be phrased as for whom are we measuring our impact? The many different people involved in a nonprofit, from the population served, to the staff members, to the donors, and so on, all have different perspectives into the organization and therefore, different understandings of impact. For example, while a donor wants to see that translation from dollars to resources, a staff member might want to see that translation from hours spent at work. Therefore, understanding who is invested and involved in your work, and who is asking to see your impact, will ultimately determine what kind of data you will be choosing to measure your impact.

Once you are able to work through these questions, determining what data should be collected should be much clearer to an organization. The next question posed, then, is how to collect it?

How do I collect that data?

Now that we have a better understanding of what data we should be collecting, it is important to learn how to actually go about doing so. Now it is important to note that doing this from a general perspective is a little difficult, as the type of data and organization will determine the specifics of this process, but this section will aim to share some best practices in the industry for collecting data, broken down by type of data.

Donor Data

As all nonprofit organizations are aware, money is necessary to the operation of your programs, and therefore, having clear and consistent data on who your donors are is incredibly important to the success of your organization. For data on donors, through whichever system your organization currently utilizes to track donors, we suggest keeping strong records of who donors are, how much and how often they donate, and their contact information. Further documentation could be made of their connection to the organization and their motivation for getting involved, as well as other community ties they might have that could be a benefit to your organization as well. This will allow you to tailor specific messaging to these individuals that reflects their value to your organization. We suggest doing this information collection either through a digital survey required after an online donation is made or through notes taken from an in-person conversation after a donation is made

Program Data

As a nonprofit organization, you operate many different programs to achieve your mission and all of these produce data that will reflect your impact in your intended community. This includes data on volunteers or staff involved, the number of individuals served, the financial resources required to operate the program, and so on. To collect this data, keep a running database that tracks spending, volunteers and their involvement, and population served. This can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet, or can be better streamlined through the use of outside software like a CRM, which will be covered later in this section. 
In addition, you want to understand the community’s reaction to your programs outside of the qualitative data. As much as numbers can tell the story of your organization, the reality of your work comes out best in the lived experience of those engaged with your organization, who can tell your story for you. This includes volunteers’ stories on why they decided to get involved, or an individual’s reasons for joining in your programming, or a donor’s incentive for funding your operations. This kind of data can be collected through in-person interviews or online surveys which use questions specific to your organization to best reflect user experience. For online surveys, simple options include creating Google Forms, which automatically compile responses into a Google sheet for you.

Campaign / Marketing Data

As an organization, it is a given that you operate many different streams of marketing or campaigning, both in-person and online, to facilitate your work. This includes campaigns to raise funds, email pushes to spread awareness of your cause, donor engagement events, and so on. All of these opportunities provide valuable information for your organization, much of which can be easily tracked. For example, track the number of people who attend an event or the amount of people who engage with an email or social media campaign, thinking in terms of likes on a post or followers gained or comments posted or so on. These provide easy numbers that over time can help paint a picture of how effective your marketing is, both to existing and potential investors and volunteers.

Something also to consider here is your donor acquisition cost, or DAC, which is the amount of money it takes for your organization to convince a new donor to give money to your cause. This is an incredibly useful metric to a nonprofit, which needs to use its resources in the most effective ways. To get an estimate of your DAC, add together any financial data on marketing campaigns or events held to garner new donors and divide that by the number of new donors you gained over that time.

Staff and Volunteer Data

Staff and volunteer data, which is the final type of data for this section, is incredibly important to the operation of your organization, as it allows you to understand who is working for you and how they are contributing to your overall success. The data collected here can tell you how long the average worker spends with your organization, how many people it takes to facilitate your programming, the cost of that retention, etc. Similar to the program data section, this can be done both through tracking numerics on a spreadsheet, as well as collecting qualitative interviews from staff and volunteers on their experiences at your organization.

Now that we have made it through the kinds of data to collect and how to go about that process, we hope it has been made clear the avenues available to your organization to get this process started. The final note to be made in this section, then, is how to ensure the safety of that valuable information.

How do I safely store that data?

The final step in the data collection process is to consider how to store the data you collect. This is especially important in nonprofit organizations, who are often working with sensitive data from vulnerable populations or financial data vital to the inner workings of the organization. Thus, how can one store data in a simple, yet safe way? This section will outline some data security tips that will help you keep your data safe.

Choose a safe data storage location

This might seem like a simple answer to the question of how to store data safely, but where you store your data is both the first and the most important step in this process. For example, storing files on your computer’s desktop is not the most secure option, as your computer could get damaged or stolen and suddenly you no longer have access to your files. This also is not always the most efficient option, as only one person can access your data at a time, making it difficult for multiple members of your team to be able to make data-informed decisions. A similar story goes for storing data on physical options, such as disks or hard drives, as they can be easily lost or damaged, and further can become quite expensive when the size of data gets too large. Thus, we’d suggest using a cloud-based storage option, such as Google Drive, iCloud, or DropBox, which allow for multiple people to access the data at once, require a password to do so, and inherently provide back-ups of your data – three points of importance which I will cover below.

Backup your data

When dealing with important data, there is always risk of it getting lost or hacked or corrupted. Backing up your data helps protect against this challenge by essentially creating “back-up” copies of your data which you can access in times of need. Storing your data in the cloud is especially helpful with this process, as these software services also encrypt your data for you.

Password protect your data

In cases of highly sensitive data, it is important to ensure the protection of yours and your clients and donors data, which is why we recommend password protecting your data. Some software services provide this option already within their platforms, or you can utilize outside software like Microsoft Azure to enable multi-factor authentication before accessing data.

Delete unnecessary data

We will cover data cleaning later in this module, but we would like to highlight the importance of not retaining unnecessary data. This will ensure that you are focusing your resources on only the data that is vital to the success of your organization, and not taking up unneeded capacity.

Update your software

While not a practice specifically focused on the data itself, updating your software consistently will protect your organization from any security breaches that could pose a risk to the safety of your data.

Subtopic: CRMs
One way many nonprofits streamline their data collection and storage is through a constituent relationship management system, or CRM. These are systems that have a variety of tools already baked into their systems to keep track of lots of data in one place, from managing your constituents (or the population your organization aims to serve), to coordinating volunteers, to operating campaigns, to tracking donors, and so on. For example, a CRM can allow you to store information about your various groups of stakeholders and allow your organization to send targeted content on your impact to different subgroups of those stakeholders. Further, a CRM has the capacity to build reports and dashboards based off of data already collected in the system, from which you can make data-informed decisions to expand the impact of your work. These systems do require your organization to pay for their use, sometimes on a monthly fee and sometimes on an upfront payment, so it is important to evaluate your needs and the options available before moving forward with a CRM. Some examples of CRMs built explicitly for nonprofits are (and listed in no particular order):

And there we have it, a basic rundown of what data is and why it is important, how to collect that data, and how to store that data – congratulations, you are on your way to measuring your impact! The hope is that by this point in the unit, you have a grasp on all of these concepts, which we will now aim to put into practice through a brief activity.


To practice measuring impact, we are going to use your organization as a case study. Assume you are aiming to source new funding from a large philanthropic organization and need to present the impact of your work, but you only have a limited amount of time. 

Let’s start by answering the first question from the initial section of this unit: what is our mission and what do we do to achieve it? Write this down on a piece of paper. 

If your organization has multiple projects going on at once, circle just one of those projects – we’d suggest choosing the one with which you are most involved. From there, write down some metrics associated with that project. For example, if it is an after school tutoring program, some metrics could be the number of student volunteers, number of children in the program, the grades of those children before and after being tutored, the cost of the program, and so on. Write down as many as you can think of.

Again, select just one of those metrics, perhaps the one you might already know a little about or that you think is reflective of the success of the program. Write down how you would collect data on this metric, being as specific as possible. What collection methods would you use? Where would you store the data? Would you need to have a team for this?

From there, while you might not have the proper data yet collected, act as if you did. How would you pitch this to the philanthropic organization? Why is it that this piece of data means that the organization should fund your work? Write down your answer.

And viola! You have a small roadmap to measuring one facet of your organization’s impact!

Closing Discussion

As we have covered, there is much to consider when aiming to measure one’s impact. Share any insights you have gained about this process with the group. Did anything surprise or challenge you? Do you think the way your organization measures impact currently is effective, and is there anything you plan to implement from this course in response? 

We appreciate you taking the time to work through this unit, and encourage you onto the next one, where you will learn how to clean the data you just learned to collect.

Congratulations on completing this workshop! Please consider giving us feedback in our survey linked in the button below so that we can continue to improve our workshops.