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Bright ideas in nonprofits: operations


If you’re a nonprofit organization, how do you know if you’re operating at the right level of efficiency? A good nonprofit business plan can get you off the ground, but after that, how do you know for sure if you’re on track or not?

Enter data and analytics, which offer a way for any organization to gain better insight into their performance and understand what’s working, and what isn’t.

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David B. Howard – SVP, Research, Evaluation & Learning at Covenant House – is a proponent of data and analytics and their ability to enhance the impact the organization can have as a provider of housing and supportive services to youth facing homelessness.

This focus on impact is important for several reasons. For starters, performance reviews in not-for-profit operations jobs are linked to impact, not profit. Additionally, the fundraising capacity of the nonprofit is often correlated with impact.


Impact starts with operational performance – and if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Speaking to the funding challenges for nonprofits, Howard noted: “One of our strategic goals is to diversify our revenue streams. Part of our strategy is to focus more on our impact, which can create a ‘Catch 22’: We need to demonstrate impact to get access to some of these funding streams, but we need funding to create the infrastructure and capacity to do that work well.”1

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This is where data collection and analysis come into play, helping Covenant House better tackle these challenges faced by nonprofit organizations. By carefully tracking and analyzing various data points – for example, what percentage of youth go back to live with a family member after leaving one of Covenant House’s crisis shelters? How does that compare with family placement numbers from Covenant House’s transitional housing program? – Covenant House can gain a better understanding of its own operations while being able to better quantify impact.

In a panel speech at a 2017 youth homelessness symposium, Howard said: “We’ve done a lot of work to figure out what’s working within our network. How can we improve our outcomes? How can we get all of our sites to come together, better share data, share learning – all in an effort to achieve better outcomes for our young people?”2

Impact starts with operational performance – and if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. However, even as Howard has helped Covenant House to start collecting the data, crunching the numbers, and establishing the benchmarks, he is careful not to lose sight of the big picture. As he noted at the symposium: “Numbers and statistics are important, but it’s not about the data. The data reflects the lives of young people, and it’s about improving outcomes and getting better.”2




[1]  Steffes-Tuttle, Andrea. (2018, October 17). Nonprofits Using Advanced Analytics See Better Results. Retrieved from

[2] Howard, David. Analyzing Family Placements from Shelter and Transitional Housing.

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