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Node X research: Optimizing nonprofit capacity with Data Collaboration

Updated: Mar 25

The Data Collaboration Alliance is working with the Community YWCA of Muskoka to maximize outcomes for nonprofit teams through Data Collaboration

Nonprofit organizations perform some of the most vital work in maintaining a just and functional society and they do so with some of the tightest resource constraints - both human and financial - of any sector.


A big area of concern that all nonprofits share is the level of effort associated with managing data, including its collection, protection, access, and use.


A major survey of nonproft employees concluded that the state of data in the sector is undeniably strong:

  • 90% indicate their organizations are collecting data

  • 87% believe data to be at least moderately important to operations

  • 97% said they wanted to learn more about data and how to use it effectively

However, the respondents also made clear that practices and culture are still catching up:

  • 46% revealed that their data is spread across multiple systems

  • 6% feel confident that the data at their disposal is being used effectively

  • 66% reported not having a specific staff member dedicated to data management

  • 5% of respondents say their decisions are always driven by data

So while data is deemed vital to nonprofit teams, it is fragmented, under-resourced, and under-utilised as a means to drive better outcomes.


Node X project: Optimizing nonprofit capacity


Through its Node X program, the Data Collaboration Alliance is supporting the Community YWCA of Muskoka with free software and other resources to h


elp them examine the impact of Data Collaboration on small nonprofit teams.


The research is being conducted as a 'Proof of Concept' (POC) taking place over a 3 month period and includes the following objectives:

  1. Migrate program data from spreadsheets to a Data Collaboration environment

  2. Introduce granular access controls to data, esp. personally-identifiable data

  3. Introduce next-generation Data Governance (Data Mesh / domain-centricity)

  4. Extend datasets via direct engagement between users + systems (Data Collaboration)

  5. Blend and query program data to generate insights (Data Analytics)

  6. Build protoype 'No Code' system with no new database or Data Integration and negligible IT resource (data-centricity)

Research goals


The goal of this Node X Data For Good project is to measure the impact of Dataware technology and the Data Collaboration approach on the following:

  1. Reduce / eliminate 'operational' spreadsheets

  2. Improve Data Protection compliance

  3. Improve data accessibility

  4. Automate data enrichment

  5. Generate program-related insights

  6. Improve cross-team problem-solving (without compromising data ownership)

Research team

The project is being lead by Hannah Lin, a nonprofit executive with over 30 years' experience with organizations focused on youth, education, culture and heritage. She joined YWCA Muskoka in 2005 as a facilitator in youth programs and has been its Executive Director for the past 9 years.


Hannah is a member of the National Young Women’s Leadership and Engagement Committee at YWCA Canada and in 2014 she was awarded the Jessie Dunn Award for her outstanding contribution and advocating on behalf of children in Muskoka.


A key resource for this project was sourced via the Prosperity Project, a not-for-profit organization that was seeded by a group of 62 female leaders from across Canada to support women's economic empowerment and underscore the economic importance of gender equality.


The charity manages a 'Matching Initiative' that connects non-profit organizations that serve women and girls with experienced professionals in 5 focus areas: IT and Digital, Human Resources, Finance, Strategy, and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.


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What's next?


Hannah and her team plan to present their findings on the impact of Data Collaboraiton at the YWCA Canada National Annual General Meeting which takes place in June 2022. The potential to widen the scope of the current research to include multiple YWCA branches will also be explored.


About Node X


Operated by the Data Collaboration Alliance, Node X is a Data For Good program that provides free Dataware software and other resouces in support of collaborative research projects.




Interview transcript


Chris McLellan: Hello! Where are you right now?


Hannah Lin: I'm in Bracebridge, which is a couple of hours north of Toronto for those not familiar with Canada in the province of Ontario.


Chris McLellan: Tell us a little bit about that community. Like who lives there? What what goes on what are the main industries?


Hannah Lin: Sure sure. So Muskoka is a region in Ontario that's actually fairly well-known as a place for recreation. It's known for Algonquin Park its natural beauty lakes lots of people cottage here. It's a seasonal destination and it's also rural and fairly large. So we run the YWCA here and we're one of 32 YWCAs across Canada and ours is a community based charity that operates across across a Rural region.


Chris McLellan: That's really cool. I actually worked there as a student in my in my younger days building docs on one of the many lakes and in your region that that was a really fun experience. I mean but one thing I definitely. We experienced there was even though it's kind of known as a wealthy playground or at least parts of it are.


Right. I interacted with a lot of people that live there full time obviously in the communities that are up there. You know places like Raven Hurst every call and Bracebridge and you know there's some sizable cities and these were you know Definitely not playgrounds or the rich it was a diverse community.


There's lots of people up there right?


Hannah Lin: Yeah. Yeah. Our our year-round population is about 66,000 and in the summertime multiply that by four. And so what you do have is very fairly seasonal economy. You do have a growing income gap between those that come here to play, have been coming here for many generations and feel very attached to the place for its natural beauty and their and their recreation but also people that are rural and you know in a smaller community with less opportunity and often less services.


That somebody in an urban environment would just expect to be there.


Chris McLellan: Would you say that the challenges that women face and in that region are pretty broadly similar to what you might face elsewhere? Or are there is there something that you find that's that's unique to the area?


Hannah Lin: I think we're hearing that there are challenges facing a lot of Canadians and a lot of women particularly.


We hear about housing that housing and affordable housing is an issue across the country in a rural area in our area. For example it's very difficult to hire somebody if they don't already live here because they need housing. There's no public transportation. So you you have instances of one car.


Or who's working from home the distances between places for me for my husband but an hour to drive to Berry it's about 300 kilometers to Toronto. Right. So depending on the services you're looking for or needing sometimes rural people were all women experienced. Higher levels of social isolation.


There may be less services available for counseling supports mental health supports access to the hospital right? A nurse practitioners clinic might be a hundred kilometers away. And that has an impact.


Chris McLellan: Of course when you mentioned housing none of that's helped by I think Canada is only second to New Zealand and the wow.


It's gone beyond sort of supply and demand mechanics into the realm of. Insanity basically in terms of house prices they don't reflect anything in terms of the market. It's more about panic buying at the stage and stuff like that. And that's driven up everything. Hasn't it? Like


Hannah Lin: it really has an in with housing or costs of utilities.


It's winter here right now. So that's a consideration and an internet right? We're talking about a digital climate right? So the internet and the availability when you're in an area that is both. Also four I'm living in the backyard of beautiful rocks and trees rocks and trees are great for a signal


Chris McLellan: So we have another person on the call and that someone who is going to be joining you on your note X project and that's Rahul Sharma.


Rahul Sharma: Hey Chris.


Chris McLellan: So Rahul we know each other professionally we worked together a couple of years ago and I have a lot of respect for your knowledge and insight into the world of data and finance and everything in between.


So how did you get involved with the YWCA?


So I got involved as part of the prosperity Institute initiative. So that's a not-for-profit Institute which basically started in COVID. And what that does is that you know any volunteers want to invest some of their knowledge and time for any nonprofit. So the prosperity Institute matches both of them.


And then this was a great initiative that bring forward to me. And and I taught you know that's that's something where some of my previous experience and knowledge could could be impactful and hence I'm I'm engaged it's a six month commitment which was thrill go which started it. In October.


And I think I'm I'm engaged to girl early April as part of the initial understanding. We did some gap analysis and either defied some potential opportunities. And I thought synergy would be a very good solution to actually overcome all of them. And that's why you know we engage yourself Chris as lessons you do.


Yeah. So it should point out that Rahul has sort of brought this project to the note X program and we're really happy to support.


I don't know that maybe that's a good opportunity to describe for people viewing or listening to this. Some of the challenges that you know that you faced with regard to data management program management all the stuff that nonprofits do how would you define the problems you are encountering? Sure


Hannah Lin: sure.


So our YWCA is 25 years old and we've been always programmed outreach. With a small team our budget is still under a million overall and we have 18 staff delivering 19 programs across 5,000 square kilometers. And so everybody before COVID and even before this time before the last few years we were doing a lot of things manually people might have a tote in their car.


As they're driving to do a girls program they may have a spreadsheet on their computer. It might still be a computer not a laptop. At least we moved the laptops. And what we found is that there was a lot of siloing both in the overall sector on a bigger scale. And when you're talking about smaller organizations you're looking for capacity building without reinventing the wheel over and over and over we just don't have that resource.


To be able to start from from the ground every time. So building on the strengths that we had we came to this project and a few of my key directors of programs said you know what we do we do very well but I don't know what she's doing. Right. Or the list we have our of our participants. It's not cross-referenced we know only qualitatively or with one person.

Knowledge and hopefully they're sticking around for awhile.


That one of their clients may have come in through one door participated in a program. Their family may have participated in something. We have seen the progression but it was always tied to people and somebody's individual memory or their individual spreadsheets.

A collective understanding of being able to track somebody's journey.


Chris McLellan: Right. And I think you know that with that you share the same sort of problem is almost every organization in the planet which is yeah. Which is very common that data gets siloed. And then at some point you want to bring the asset that is data together again to provide some sort of insight intelligence.


To move your programs to move your organization forward solve problems faster. I think it will be also interesting. If you could describe a little bit the sort of programs you run and the sort of data that is collected managed and using their because I my guess is that being the wide WCA that there's a lot of sensitive information that you're managing that


Hannah Lin: historically that's perhaps why we're often siloed is we're very conscious of.

Collecting somebody's personal information their right to own their own story. Boundaries and confidentiality overall is really important to somebody's safety right? And the programs we run we run girls programs for girls as young as eight and nine years old in school-based settings virtual settings and summer programs.


We run programs for women around self-employed. Life skills training wellness mindfulness seniors social connection programs. And we also have a cluster of programs that we run around their community-based. I call it peer mentorship where you're bringing together people from across class lines. To change a family's theory of change.


So their own story about getting out of a cycle poverty for example by building relationships with volunteers who may come from different class backgrounds and have access or know how to navigate the systems of education health employment systems. Right? So it's a fairly complex model. You know delivering services that have developed over time to address the needs of people in our community.


And that's I don't see that changing right. As we get more programs more needs more people in our communities then we need to we don't want to drop the ball. Right. We want to do it well so that we can still continue to focus on the people that we're serving. And then. Helping them make their further their stories.


Chris McLellan: We've got a lot of stakeholders there and you're absolutely right. The last time I checked the world wasn't getting any simpler. It seems to be going the other way. So so Rahul given all that where did you see the the match? Like maybe you could expand a little bit on you know the note X program.


Provides technology to good projects like the YWCAs here. And part of that is to offer them a next generation of data governance but also to build things and build things faster and more efficiently. What what did you see in the terms of matching the technology to the new. Where do you see this going over the next few months?


Rahul Sharma: I think as Hannah mentioned a few points like one is the participants lost right now there are teen programs there are 18 participants list. Even if if the program runs four times a year there could be four different participant villains for even one program. And then we copy and paste and get a new program.


Like all of that. Basically we disappeared because we'll have one master participant. Most similarly we have even less similarly we have volunteer lists and we have donuts less like endless opportunities are here. And and then I think the the benefit that we're going to get off. Data is is getting the insights out of it right?


Because that's where you start to get value where now data is connected. You can see that how many times are participants attending the events and which events and similarly what event has been attending this participant? Guess what the participant is now a volunteer.


Guess what? Now the volunteer is a donor right?

All of that data connection. We can now plan to generate and let's see how the project goes but that's where we want to take it to where now every data is is actually an asset and that can be leveraged for either enhancements or for any more generation of donors and as well as our yearly reporting. And so-and-so.


Chris McLellan: That's really that's really cool. And it reminds me I was on a call we're in an exploratory stages with a pretty major city about some of their needs. And it's actually happens to be around their programs and non-profits focused on children and they they were taking a broadly very similar approach in that they want to.


Get data into an organized structured controlled environment to do analytics and gain insights that with the effectiveness of their programs. But then what they're thinking is as a as a follow on to that or a potential next project would be to start to do some automations around those programs. So things could just get done that are from a more automated way.


And to have that efficiencies. As they say in sports to keep the money on the field so that the people are working for the nonprofits can actually do the frontline work they're doing with children and their parents as opposed to spending as much time on operational stuff. And so I feel like there's there's something in that for the YWCA project.


Hannah Lin: Yes I definitely. And also the piece about storage how much time you spend finding things how much time you spend handling something. And then if you're dealing with staff turnover as we know you know through this time there's been a fair amount of burnout turnover and so on new people coming in you don't want to lose the organizational memory but because they moved on to another job opportunity I think it's important to be able to keep that right.


Through it all and not having to as Rahul said that you know four times a year we run this program. We four lists for posters for registration forms and then you throw in a new person or an infection. And where do they start? Right. They have to go find it. Right. So I'm I'm excited. I'm really excited about seeing the links and being able to find things in one place and also be able to include the collaborators.


I mean I recognize we can't do this all at once as excited as I am. We're very excited and please we're able to work with him through the prosperity project and also through Cinci. But I can also see as a organization that is connected to the more broadly and also in our community community partner agencies that we often Sayre governance job descriptions toolkits with that not having to go through.


Attach it to an email send it Sarah. Remember whether you sent it all that administrivia as it were would be just much more at the fingertips of every.


Chris McLellan: Yeah that that's great. So we often describe dataware as the data-centric operating system for your organization. And what you're really building is a little kind of like I described the start of our call today a digital brain for your organization and it grows over time and what's what's gets me really excited.


Is your location your part you are part of a network. Other branches of the Y WCA of which I think I'm assuming there are probably thousands in the world and hundreds in Canada dozens in Canada. And so you know the the potential for what you're doing as a proof of concept to really within your organization has such potential to start linking up other other areas in jurisdictions of the YWCA potentially.


But I think it's a. A great project for that reason. And I'm super excited to see where it goes to see pictures of your your brain your digital brain as it evolves about your human brain and Rahul we'll. We'll definitely look to check in with yourself again to see how the the data sets and the projects are evolving.


And I really look forward to doing that in a in a couple of months time or so.


Hannah Lin: Thank you. Thank you for having us.



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