Using Data for Good: Return on Investment in Corporate Responsibility

May 14, 2019 8:25 AM ET

Alliance Data recently hosted a panel discussion at Boston College’s annual Center for Corporate Citizenship Conference on the topic of “Data for Good: Maximizing Impact through Data-Driven Nonprofit Partnerships.” Alliance Data’s Dana Beckman, Director of Corporate Affairs, facilitated a conversation with Tina Weinfurther, President and CEO of nonprofit consulting firm CNM, as well as Daniel Roby, Executive Director of homeless shelter Austin Street Center, on the challenges of both corporate funders and nonprofits in demonstrating return on investment.

Below are several highlights from the session, which featured a case study on CNM-pact, an outcomes-driven consulting and technology service developed by CNM, funded through Alliance Data and utilized by Austin Street Center.

Illustrating ROI can be a challenge

Nonprofits face many challenges above and beyond day-to-day operations, including how to evaluate and demonstrate outcomes. Many do not have the program evaluation expertise and technology needed to collect, analyze and report results based on a valid methodology.  Most also do not have adequate staff resources to dedicate time to collecting and working with data. Yet, data is what they need to illustrate to funders that their programs are working.

CNM’s Weinfurther explained, “In terms of fund-raising, a significant challenge to securing support from corporations and foundations is providing measurable outcomes. Yet, nonprofits require funding to build capacity to harness their data. It’s a catch 22.”

Austin Street Center’s Roby agreed, “We hear from all funders: we want data and we want outcomes. Yet, every day, we are concerned with a lot of problems to solve – a leaky roof, the number of beds we provide, how we are going to deliver our programs – and these are all things we have to fund. On top of that, we need to make sure we have funding for data and then, we need to be able to fund the outcomes of the data exercise. There are short-term needs we have as a nonprofit, but also long-term outcomes we try to reach. All of that comes through good data.”

Addressing social issues through data

To use data for good, CNM-pact© provides nonprofits with evaluation expertise and technology so they are better able to understand what is going on with their programs and where there may be opportunities for improvement. No matter which program or issue is the focus, nonprofits can rely on data to build out the resources they need to deliver on programs. They can also better report on the results.

CNM’s Weinfurther said, “We want to shine a light on the real work of nonprofits, so corporations and foundations can direct their investments accordingly.”

CNM-pact started in 2016 with eight nonprofit clients, and currently have over 60. CNM recently launched CNM-pact Certified to help nonprofits communicate to funders that they are serious about data and measurement, and reassure donors that the outcomes they share are reliable.

Roby commented on how using data helps operate a homeless shelter. “One of the things nonprofits struggle with is what I struggle with. I am running two businesses: first, daily program and outcomes, and second, fundraising. I can be really good at one, but not the other. With CNM-pact, we can show potential funders how Austin Street compares to other nonprofits.”

Roby explained how using data for good boosts both sides of his “business.” In 2016, Austin Street served 1,600 people. Today they are serving over 3,000 with the same number of resources and beds.  CNM-pact helped them focus on identifying people in need and moving them out of homelessness, which then freed up beds to serve more people in need.

Changing the conversation between corporate partners and nonprofits

Companies that both drive their business and support their communities come out on top.  Today’s executives know that corporate responsibility is good for business, good for employees and good for the world. Sometimes however, the best intentions in sustainability investing do not serve the mission of the nonprofit partner.

Corporate responsibility executives can help nonprofit partners by bringing a business mindset to the conversation and aligning on common objectives and long-term impact. Corporate funders are always looking for specific outcomes in philanthropy, but they may not be clear to the nonprofit what measurements they are seeking,

Weinfurther suggested, “Go into the conversation with nonprofits by asking questions about how they measure instead of going in with your own agenda. Your partners need to understand what you are focusing on as a funder. Forcing your objectives on a nonprofit is counterintuitive to the success of their program.”

Roby added, “Find a nonprofit who does really good work, go deep with them, and hold them accountable for doing really good work. That’s when we all get maximum impact.”