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Canadian Knowledge Hub
for Giving and Volunteering

The Significance of Data-Informed and Evidence-Based Decision-Making in Canada’s Not-for-Profit Sector

During times of rapid change, data-informed and evidence-based decision-making in the not-for-profit sector becomes a critical approach to ensure effective program planning, volunteer engagement strategies, diversified fund development strategies, and laying the foundations for the sector’s sustainability.

Since before the COVID-19 pandemic, with advancements in technology, the significance of data-informed and evidence-based decision-making has been highlighted on many fronts. We have repeatedly heard, witnessed and experienced that Canada’s not-for-profit sector is rapidly changing. Primarily, not-for-profit organizations are faced with the growing demands of delivering their programs and services yet with limited resources, including a scarcity of volunteers and funds. These are not just anecdotal; they are backed by national and local data. Senior management and the governance teams have made decisions based on quantitative and qualitative data for many years. Today, that approach is spreading vertically and horizontally in the sector to better adapt and pivot with rapidly changing tides.

In this article, the data that we refer to are those that are available within an organization’s information systems, reports and records, and community-based data on the not-for-profit sector and giving and volunteering trends.

“The community calls on us to consider the big picture but with an understanding of the reality of diverse individual groups and organizations.”

Dr. Megan Conway, President and CEO, Volunteer Canada

What is data-informed and evidence-based decision-making?

Data-informed decision-making uses raw data to guide strategic decisions. In contrast, evidence-based decision-making interprets empirical evidence towards insights. During times of rapid change, data-informed and evidence-based decision-making in the not-for-profit sector becomes a critical approach to ensure effective program planning, volunteer engagement strategies, diversified fund development strategies, and laying the foundations for the sector’s sustainability.

Let’s explore the significance.

1. A Stronger Case for Support

Taking just 2 variables as examples out of the many insights, the 2022 4th Quarter Report on the Canadian Survey on Business Conditions by Statistics Canada highlights that 32% of participating organizations experienced a demand for services, and 65% reported a shortage of volunteers. The 2023 Giving Report by CanadaHelps highlights that 40% of charities have experienced demand, and 55% have reported fewer volunteers. The data shows a trend in high demand from not-for-profits and a shortage of volunteers affected by the pandemic. Complemented with the organizational data demonstrating its capacity to make a positive impact, these statistics can help a not-for-profit build a stronger case for support. Data is indeed a point-in-time reflection, yet data that is, for example, gathered 5 years earlier are also valuable data to show the year-over-year trends impacting the sector.

2. Impactful Programming

Data and evidence can show the trends and outcomes of an organization’s activities and the external trends influencing the ultimate impact. A data-informed and evidence-based decision-making practice enables an organization to identify the best possible strategies and tactics. It helps to keep track of what is working and what is not, efficient allocation of resources, and more significant community impact. At the same time, with rapid change comes the need to be agile – and agility warrants efficient use of resources, especially when the resources are by the community for the community.

3. Community’s Trust

Volunteers, donors and stakeholders of not-for-profit organizations take a vested interest in their impact on the community. They want assurance that their contributions are making a difference. Organizations that demonstrate data-informed and evidence-based decisions are more likely to gain and retain the community’s trust. These organizations can engage the stakeholders more effectively by showcasing their commitment to transparency and accountability.

The 2018 CanadaHelps Giving Report highlighted the significance of transparency in building donor trust. Donors appreciate organizations sharing data-driven reports fostering stronger and long-term partnerships.

4. Effective Resource Allocation

When resources are often limited, such is the reality in the not-for-profit sector, informed decisions about resource allocation are crucial. Data and evidence-based decision-making can help organizations identify where resources, including volunteers, funds and in-kind donations, make the most significant impact.

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the not-for-profit sector to its core. Organizations with data-informed practices were better equipped to pivot and adapt to the rapidly changing environment. Many capacity-building organizations across Canada, such as volunteer centres and not-for-profit networks, studied the impact of COVID-19 on civic participation, including gathering data on giving and volunteering. Significant insights from these studies helped the not-for-profit sector re-organize programming, volunteer engagement and fund development strategies.

5. Risk Management and Accountability

Data-informed and evidence-based decisions also aid in risk management by clearly understanding potential challenges and opportunities. Further, as the governance teams have done for many years, data and evidence provide the big picture in finance and operations to keep their organizations accountable. This helps organizations comply with regulations, apply wise practices and foster trust and transparency with stakeholders, donors and the public.

6. Strategy and Innovation

Data can also uncover collaborations, correlations, opportunities and target audiences that not-for-profit organizations are yet to realize were within their reach. Realizations of new or unexpected relationships combined with creative solutions can take a not-for-profit organization and a community in new and exciting strategic directions.

“As we inspire a volunteerism movement across Canada through a National Volunteer Action Strategy, it is important that we look to data and evidence as our compass rather than ‘just navigating’. The community calls on us to consider the big picture but with an understanding of the reality of diverse individual groups and organizations. Data and evidence aren’t just information; they are a map of what’s working and what needs improvement. That is why it is important to bring community data directly to the desks of those whom the data is in service to,” says Dr. Megan Conway, President and CEO of Volunteer Canada.

An Online Hub for Data on Giving and Volunteering

To make it convenient for social purpose, philanthropic, and government organizations to access data and reports related to civic participation, Volunteer Canada, together with the project partners Imagine Canada, Association of Fundraising Professionals, and Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada, brings you an online data centre called the Canadian Knowledge Hub for Giving and Volunteering. This data centre is a hub for data and reports from various sources, including Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating (GSS-GVP), Satellite Account of Non-profit Institutions and Volunteering (SANIV), and Canadian Survey on Business Conditions (CSBC). All you need to do is to simply visit the site and explore the data stories and other resources.

Canadian Knowledge Hub for Giving and Volunteering: www.GivingAndVolunteering.ca

In conclusion, data-informed and evidence-based decision-making in Canada’s not-for-profit sector is crucial now more than ever in this post-COVID-19 pandemic era. It helps to build a stronger case for support, drives impact, enhances engagement, optimizes resource allocation, ensures risk management, keeps an organization accountable, and helps progress in new strategic directions. Thereby continuing to make a meaningful impact in our communities. To support the sector with data-informed and evidence-based decision-making, the Canadian Knowledge Hub for Giving and Volunteering brings these data to you to harness the power of a data-driven engagement.

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