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Everything Old is New Again: Building Nonprofit Capacity in the Age of Big Data

Can local organizations make their neighborhoods stronger and healthier? If they can, how do they provide evidence that they are making a difference?

These are important questions, especially as millions of data points on neighborhoods become accessible via mobile apps, Web portals, and powerful databases. But these questions are not new. Former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke made the case for data-informed analysis of community work at the 2003 Community Development Policy Summit in Cleveland, suggesting that groups could raise funds and other types of support more effectively if they would “capture intangible social benefits, such as those that accrue to a neighborhood as residents become engaged in community planning activities, improve their financial literacy, and increase their access to employment opportunities through job training.”

Using data to demonstrate these types of effects has become a higher priority in recent years, as both foundations and government seek validation for the work they are supporting. But it’s a tricky proposition, because first you have to show that something good has happened and then link those good results to a specific community improvement strategy, as opposed to a strategy or force from outside a specific organization’s control.

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