Filling The Nonprofit Information Vacuum

In Profiles & Interviews by Cinthia Schuman Ottinger3 Comments

Filling The Information Vacuum

Cinthia Schuman Ottinger, Deputy Director for Philanthropy Programs at the Aspen Institute’s  Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, discusses the need for nonprofit data and the impact that it can have.  A good part of the problem, however, is unlocking that data from the protocols and structures that render is less accessible, less useful. Cinthia closes by describing what can be done today and a few concrete ways in which we could benefit.

Responding to natural disasters; feeding the poor; caring for the elderly; educating our children; nursing the sick; and advocating for our most fundamental rights.

With missions such as these, US nonprofit organizations are far too important to be operating in an information vacuum. But that is exactly what is happening to this influential and economically powerful sector of society.

Despite the government collecting reams of data about the US nonprofit sector, much nonprofit information, if available at all, is almost two years old or more. That is too late to deal with problems as they arise, or to signal to policymakers, donors and nonprofit leaders that new challenges are emerging.

At The Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, an effort of the Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, we are working with the nation’s top nonprofit data providers – the Foundation Center, GuideStar, Johns Hopkins University, Indiana University and the Urban Institute  – to promote accessible, accurate and current information on the US nonprofit sector.

Given the nature of nonprofit work and the state of technology today – in which real-time data are increasingly possible in formats that can be manipulated for expanded analysis and use — we urge nothing less.

Examples of our data work include:

  •  research that Aspen has commissioned to understand the current Form 990 information delivery system, and recommend improvements and efficiencies that might be achieved, including the potential for expanded electronic filing. Look for this research in the next few months!;
  • an effort with Johns Hopkins University to uncover nonprofit employment and wage information, data that the Bureau of Labor Statistics already collects quarterly, but are obscured because the nonprofit sector is not categorized separately for reporting purposes; and,
  • work to promote a more accurate tracking system for federal grants, contracts, and vouchers, monies that represent a large portion of nonprofit revenue.

Efforts like the Nonprofit Data Project and Markets for Good have both set out to transform the state of data in the social sector.

We both envision the social sector having access to better information and using that data in meaningful ways, building real-time tools for understanding, analysis and forecasting.

The Nonprofit Data Project is focusing on “macro” government data on the nonprofit sector, which feeds directly into the larger information infrastructure described in the Markets for Good vision.

The consistent classifications, technical standards, reporting protocols, platforms and governance mechanisms envisioned in Markets for Good are all building blocks for greater coordination and knowledge-sharing among nonprofits, government, socially-oriented businesses, funders and the people these entities serve.

For example, current, accurate and computable data culled from the 990s, Bureau of Labor Statistics and other government data sets could potentially:

  • Provide nonprofit leaders, policymakers and donors with up-to-date information on the impact of the Great Recession on nonprofit employment, helping to understand what parts of the social sector are losing or gaining critical personnel.
  • Give policymakers, donors and nonprofit leaders accurate, real-time figures on federal funding of the nonprofit sector, showing where spending has gone up or down and what areas of nonprofit activity are attracting or shedding resources.
  • Arm nonprofit executives, donors and trustees with current nonprofit revenue and spending trends broken down by type of nonprofit, helping nonprofit leaders to gauge where their groups stand in comparison to others and helping donors to determine where to effectively place their dollars and when.
  • Enable the public to instantly find maps showing where nonprofit offices are located, aiding those in need, and helping donors and policymakers to see where possible gaps or gluts in services exist.
  • Help state charity officials identify and address potential problems earlier, improving compliance, reducing fraud and creating a climate of greater accountability.
  • Assist policymakers and nonprofits to understand the consequences of policy options affecting nonprofits, and help nonprofit organizations respond with solid facts.

Clearly, a sector that represents 10% of the workforce and trillions of dollars in assets needs to get a better handle on its overall workforce, finances, and programs in order to have the greatest impact.

While it is important to recognize that good data are only part of what is needed to promote impact, they are a critical part.

Let’s not forget: what is not counted, often does not count. Without regular, solid statistics on the nonprofit sector, the full impact of the social sector will not be realized.


  1. Is the problem really a lack of tools? Looking at the financial markets for instance, a large portion of that information infrastructure takes place via plain old excel, which is quite powerful in its transparency and portability. Nonprofits have the exact same access to this basic but powerful tool. The difference is the analytical ecosystem around financial markets (notably the legions of analysts at rating agencies, financial services firms, banks, hedge funds, etc.) which is quite clearly lacking in the social sector. So the question I would pose to get us closer towards your laudable goals in employment, funding, impact, etc is this: how might we nurture an analytical ecosystem for the social sector?

    Remember data is just unstructured information; the value comes out the meaning we can glean from it.



    1. Thanks, Patrick, for this comment. If the problem is not a lack of tools, but rather the lack of an analytical ecosystem, then perhaps we could follow that logic to a cultural root: b-school culture as the most relevant case-in-point and the types of skills (people) attracted by the social sector. Further, I think we could convert that cultural problem into a demand equation.

      If we’re now seeing a new uptick in top mba’s going into private equity ( when a longer recent trend saw the pe motivation decline with the market ( then we can safely (and obviously) hypothesize that talent goes where the market, the money, is. [Aside: We can also see market recovery without economic recovery, and fuel that right out of b-school.]

      The market driven concentration of students in one or two disciplines headed to typical jobs depletes other sectors. That’s a tough demand equation for the social sector. Impact investing is now in the b-school lexicon (see the comments in 2nd article), but the b-school world is not yet fluent in “for good.” In a related move, the early 2000s scandals ushered in ethics as the latest non-finance, non-consulting oriented curriculum piece, while pe, in good times and bad, has been added as a separate course. And, for the impact investing practitioner, there is still the challenge of getting financial markets to speak of it in preferred terms and perceiving a relevant volume opportunity.

      Assuming talent as a big driver of the analytical ecosystem, what do you think could shift the draw for talent to the social sector? Filling it up with “business types” is not the total solution – witness the crisis, but more importantly the complexity and indirect financial returns of solving social problems. Nevertheless, there is not a critical mass from b-schools in the “for good” analytical ecosystem. There is hope of diversification, but are there other ways, e.g. as Beth Kanter proposes ((, strengthening the skills base with existing staff who will then create the formal and informal elements that make up an infrastructure?

      The other big mba subject, marketing, is driven by the same equation though the money is less. And how about manufacturing: Amazingly, it’s not spoken of much, but can we really sustain 300 million simple consumers? It is time to distribute the talent, but how? Maybe it’s just a matter of time,,e.g. waiting on impact investing to take hold as a rationale, but I don’t think so. A radical change is needed while the social sector itself must build an infrastructure to attract and support talent to fill the analytical ecosystem and broaden it to all levels of the social sector?

      Any MBA students out there up to comment, too?

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