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November 26, 2020
Study Details How Effective Use of Data Helps Nonprofits Grow

August 18, 2020 — A newly published report on how arts nonprofits can use data and market research to cultivate new audiences and strengthen bonds with current supporters offers insights that a broader range of organizations will likely find applicable.

According to Data and Deliberation: How Some Arts Organizations are Using Data to Understand Their Organizations, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, found that organizations that used data and market research as part of a continuous learning approach—an iterative process of design, implementation, analysis, and determination of changes needed for improvement—were able to surmount the challenges inherent in the process and reap rewards.

The study was prompted by national statistics that continue to show stagnant or declining attendance across many forms in the nonprofit arts.

Researchers found being open to what it data say about what is working and what isn’t prompted study participants to confront their insularity and misperceptions about audiences that helped them improve their understanding of their audiences.

Key findings of the report include the following:

  • Engaging with data appears to be most productive when embedded in a larger deliberative process. The report shows how organizations benefit from using data and market research as an input into a broader process of reflection and assessment about whether mission-driven goals are being pursued.
  • Data can yield useful insights beyond organizations’ immediate and planned purposes. The researchers found numerous instances where engaging with data helped prompt organizations to become aware of unexamined assumptions they held about their intended audience(s).
  • Productive data engagement can be complex and costly. While organizations participating in the research expressed enthusiasm for taking a data-based approach, they also said that they rarely have adequate funds to do so.
  • Recognizing the rewards and challenges in advance can help organizations more effectively plan for data engagement. Key issues to consider are what type of data are most relevant and what resources will be needed to support data collection and analysis.
  • Effectively using data requires organizations to frankly acknowledge what the data say about what is working and what is not, in a fruitful rather than punitive fashion. Productive data engagement is not just about the data, but about how data are approached, what are questions asked, and a willingness to revise preconceptions.

"Data is not a magic bullet — but when the right data are used with an openness to change and a willingness to question and revisit one’s preconceptions, data can be a powerful tool indeed," the report notes."

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