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Conference draws professionals from across the US to collaborate on data research

Audience watching panel in building atrium

The 2024 West Coast Nonprofit Data Conference, hosted by the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation on the Downtown Phoenix campus, brought professionals together to talk about the importance and challenges of data in the nonprofit field. Photo by Phillip Bencomo

May 01, 2024

By Lillian Finley

Researchers, professors, students and nonprofit professionals gathered at Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus April 19–20 for the 2024 West Coast Nonprofit Data Conference, hosted by the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation.

Beginning at the University of California Los Angeles in 2004, the West Coast Nonprofit Data Conference has a 21-year history as a place for collaboration in data, research and scholarship. 

This year, the conference returned to Phoenix for the first time since 2019. Nearly 100 attendees  from across the U.S. — plus one professor from Scotland’s University of Stirling — arrived to share knowledge, findings and ideas at the two-day event.

The role of data in nonprofit funding

The conference’s first day began with a panel conversation, “Funders’ Perspectives on Nonprofit Data.” Representing a diverse set of views from across the funding landscape, panelists included representatives from the Garcia Family Foundation, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and Vitalyst Health Foundation. Kim Covington, Arizona Community Foundation’s vice president of community initiatives, served as moderator.

According to the panelists, data is crucial in driving funding decisions. Whether the initiative is national, regional or local, accurate and reliable research data is a necessary part of identifying where funding has been or will be effective. 

For example, David Martinez III, Vitalyst Health Foundation’s director of capacity building and community engagement, identified the role of U.S. Census data in what he calls “the four D’s”: data, decisions, dollars and districts. 

According to Martinez, U.S. Census data informs political decisions, which then drive government dollars and, eventually, can even impact Congressional districts. Through this process, data can be a breaking point that “inhibits an Arizonan’s ability to be heard,” Martinez said. 

Erin Goodman, senior program officer of Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, echoed a similar idea.

According to Goodman, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust is a contributor to the Cultural Data Project — a national initiative collecting data about the arts to be shared with funders. This data is then used to aid grant-making across the country. 

Challenges in the nonprofit data landscape

Sharing and implementing data across organizational boundaries is a pressing issue in the nonprofit data landscape.

According to Goodman, this is amplified among state agencies, which have no existing process for sharing data with other agencies or organizations.

Even in organizations that are collecting data, “they are not set up to do anything but collect and display it," Goodman said. She stressed the importance of creating conditions in which data can be used more efficiently. 

Garcia Family Foundation President Jon Ehlinger cited his organization’s long-term goals in response. To enhance the effectiveness of the Garcia Family Foundation’s data aggregation efforts, Ehlinger said the organization has set a goal of releasing trends in data as they arrive, speeding up the implementation process. 

“We have a lot of data, but it’s in 15 different places,” said Ehlinger. “We want the work to go from done to immediate next steps.” 

Another challenge cited by panelists is maintaining enough trust to continue collecting data in marginalized communities.

“Communities of color are concerned about the data we collect to serve them,” said Covington.

Ehlinger added to this, saying, “The issue we run into is fear of aggregated data being misused.” 

To combat this issue, panelists argued for the importance of transparency and communication with these communities. 

Conference sessions share the latest in nonprofit research

Following the panel conversation, the conference moved into research presentations, which continued on Saturday.

Topics spanned from the practical — “Data Extraction from NGO Financial Statements” — to the philosophical — “How Do We Measure Social Entrepreneurship?”

Presentations on data collection methods and nonprofit communications were also held. 

On Saturday, Dan Hunting and Pravalika Samala, from ASU Lodestar Center’s research team, gave a plenary presentation on how they developed their new Scope of the Arizona Nonprofit Sector platform, which blends IRS and census microdata to quantify the full size and true impact of Arizona’s nonprofit sector.

Attendees who arrived early for the conference had the opportunity to tour the ASU Helios Decision Center. A partnership between ASU and Helios Education Foundation, the center convenes key stakeholders and uses data tools to examine the education system and model and visualize the impact of potential new policies and innovative solutions on education outcomes.

For graduate and doctoral students, the conference also offered a pre-session with the associate editors of “Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly,” who shared advice on being a journal reviewer and writing book reviews.

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