Improving Nonprofit Data Capacity to Strengthen Proposals to Serve Local Communities

| Louise Carter, data and communications lead, Communities Count

In June, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) at the Urban Institute and Microsoft released a collection of resources and recommendations on extending and expanding training opportunities for staff at civic organizations and governments to help them leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  To illustrate the foundations, learnings, and impacts that informed the NNIP study, we are delighted to have NNIP partners from around the U.S. sharing their experiences in developing and operating their local training programs in a series of guest blogs.  Below is one of these experiences. Previous posts in this series are available from the Urban Institute and the Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit partner organizations.

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

What can we do to help public agencies understand community needs and fund strong programs to address them? Communities Count in Washington state’s King County, is working with local governments and philanthropies to develop trainings to improve the grant-making process for public investments in health and neighborhood development.

Revealing barriers to nonprofit grant applicants’ success

In early 2015, we analyzed applications that did and did not receive funding from Communities of Opportunity, a regional initiative to stem the tide of increasing racial and geographic disparities in health outcomes. We found that the probability of receiving funding was closely linked to applicants’ ability to use data in proposals. While all funded applications had used data effectively, only 41 percent of unfunded applications had done so. Some of the unfunded proposals might have offered innovative programs or responses to emerging needs in the community but, according to one staff member, “they were unable to articulate their need or link the data they provided to the actual project.”

From this analysis, we recognized that building stronger data capacity among service organizations could improve the quality of the applicant pool and the selection process. We contacted organizations that had been turned down for funding to solicit their ideas about topics that would interest them in a data workshop.

Discovering the demand for data training

Ideas from these interviews guided the development of our first training, which focused on using data to tell a story that supports one’s case for funding. We invited staff from the nonprofits with unsuccessful applications and from other interested community organizations and local governments.

We designed the training with the participants in mind, ensuring that the class was:

    • Small: we limited the class to 30 participants.
    • Accessible: we held the event in a community venue in a low-income area of South Seattle that was easy to reach by transit, car, and bike.
    • Interactive: we left lots of time for questions, plus hands-on exercises.

The workshop filled up quickly with staff from a wide variety of community-based organizations, government, and philanthropy. In the month after training, we also offered follow-up support through customized technical assistance. Participants reported that both the training and the technical assistance were valuable, and said they would attend additional trainings if offered.

The demand for training was confirmed by a long waiting list for the first offering and new requests for training. Over the next several months, human services departments from seven suburban cities pooled their resources to partially support two large data trainings – each filled to capacity, with waiting lists.  

Moving upstream in the grantmaking process

We scheduled our next set of trainings — for nonprofits serving our suburban cities – to take place several weeks before the application deadlines for Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) and other city funding. To ensure the trainings were aligned with the criteria by which applications would be judged, we consulted with city staff who would be rating the applications and customized our curriculum to meet their needs. The workshops filled rooms to capacity in two different locations – training more than 200 participants. A review of the subsequent applications found that many cited data sources included in the trainings.

Our latest efforts center on trainings for organizations applying for funding from Best Starts for Kids, a six-year, $390 million community initiative to “improve the health and well-being of King County by investing in prevention and early intervention for children, youth, families, and communities.” As with the cities, we are coordinating with staff writing the requests for proposals (RFPs) to make sure the trainings align with the goals and evaluation criteria of each team. We offer these trainings in a variety of settings, including bidders’ conferences and webinars.

Sharing Lessons on Training

We have discovered an exciting thirst for learning about data – each workshop has spurred demand for additional sessions. We’ve learned it is most effective when we tailor trainings for each audience, which requires some time investment for each iteration. And we struggle with the tradeoffs between smaller interactive, hands-on workshops and larger, lecture-based classes to accommodate the growing demand. As community groups become more proficient at introductory concepts, they are requesting more advanced courses. For example, they increasingly want to “own” their data and have expressed interest in conducting household surveys, crowd-sourcing data, and analyzing data.  

We now understand the importance of aligning and training both sides – the groups applying for funding and the government staff rating the grant proposals. As funders become more intentional and clearer about what they want to see in applications – with themselves and in their RFPs – they make it easier for applicants to comply and are more likely to adhere to their stated criteria when evaluating applications. Communities Count has a continuing role to play in helping government program staff communicate clearly and consistently about application requirements and in helping nonprofits build a compelling case for the services they provide. We expect this will boost both the quality and the clarity of the information used in deciding how to invest public dollars to improve community health, educate our children, and revitalize our neighborhoods.

Working out of Public Health – Seattle & King County, Louise Carter leads data and communications for Communities Count, a public-private partnership that provides reliable, timely, and relevant data to improve the quality of life for residents of communities in King County, Washington.  She previously worked as an academic researcher at Universities of Washington and Minnesota, a journalist, and communications director in a policy center at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

Communities Count is a unique public-private partnership that monitors the health and well-being of King County communities, informs funding and policy decisions, and engages citizens. It operates out of Public Health-Seattle & King County, but also includes other area public agencies, including the Seattle and King County Human Services Departments, the City of Bellevue Parks and Community Services Department, and City of Renton. Local philanthropies – The Seattle Foundation and United Way of King County – also participate.

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