Technology can help your nonprofit understand constituents’ needs better

 To gather data about your programs, you might not even have to leave your office. Technology can help you meet your constituents where they are and make sense of the information you collect from them. What kinds of tools are available? In this article, we look at a few good options to collect and analyze data in the field.

Nonprofit staffers have a range of technology options to choose from when it comes to tools to help them collect data about their programs. Whether in the field, on site visits, or meeting with remote staff by videoconference, the right technology can save hours of travel and tedious data entry — but with so many options available, how do you know which ones are right for your needs?

You’ll need a way to actively collect program data such as survey results or text messages from constituents, or handwritten notes from your staff. From online surveys and qualitative narrative analysis software to text messaging and mobile apps, technology can help you obtain and manage that data in the field.

You’ll also need to analyze that data. Depending on your needs, the data you collect may be quantitative, qualitative, or a combination of both. Quantitative data uses numbers to describe a situation — for example, the number of participants, number of events, or number of services you provided — while qualitative data use words and ideas. There are tools to support both methods.

We talked to a number of experts and conducted our own research, and compiled that information into this article. We’ll walk through the different tools available to help you collect data, what they can do, and whether they might work for your particular needs. There are several free or very low-cost tools that can help you obtain and manage data. Let’s look at the tools one at a time.

Online Surveys

Need to collect data from a geographically diverse population? An online survey can help you gather information from the people your charity serves. Online survey tools are a cost-effective way to gather both qualitative and quantitative constituent data. They allow you to define survey questions and possible responses using an online interface, send constituents links to take the survey, and download response data.

SurveyMonkey offers a popular online-hosted survey tool that works well for basic surveys. Prices range from the free version for small and informal surveys to Gold and Platinum versions, which cost hundreds of dollars per year. SurveyMonkey also recently acquired one of its competitors, Zoomerang, eliminating that separate tool, but others abound. SurveyGizmo offers some basic features for free, with more sophisticated features costing between $200 and $2,000 annually. Polldaddy offers surveys and polls, with more advanced versions costing between $200 and $900 per year.

There are other low-cost integrated solutions. Constant Contact offers a discounted subscription cost of $126 per year for nonprofits that prepay. FormSite provides a limited free account and packages ranging from $180 to $1,200 per year. Moodle is free to download, but will require substantial technical knowledge to install, configure, customize, and support.

Looking to conduct larger-scale research, marketing, and feedback analysis projects? A more powerful survey package can help. Consider QuestionPro, which has a basic free version but can cost thousands per year for advanced needs, or the free, open-source LimeSurvey. Key Survey is one of the most robust of the survey tools, and the most expensive — pricing is only available by request, but can range from around $1,950 to $5,950 per year for single-user subscriptions.

Mobile Devices

Mobile data collection — gathering data using phones or other mobile devices — can be a useful tool to allow field staff to collect data directly from constituents. Many low-income and homeless populations use mobile devices as their sole means of technology, as do teenagers, providing nonprofits with a means of gathering data from these demographics — especially quick information that can be easily entered by constituents. Mobile devices also allow you to collect and analyze data with more speed and accuracy than ever before.

There are many different tools to collect data using mobile phones. Assess each carefully to make sure it meets your needs.

Mobile Texting, Also Known as SMS

Inexpensive solutions for mass texting include GroupMe, CallFire, TextIt, and FrontlineSMS, all of which have nonprofit clients. TextIt also allows you to create and send relatively complex question flows using a mobile phone. At the top of the market is Mobile Commons, which can integrate with your CRM (constituent relationship management) software but can cost upwards of $2,000 per month. For local campaigns, expect to spend anywhere between $10 and $100 per month — the cost can climb, however, depending on the size of the campaign and the number of recipients. Two-way texting can also increase cost.

Once you’ve collected your data by text, you can use geographic information systems (GIS) to display, analyze, and share it. For example, The New York Times created an interactive map of bird-watching spots in the city by asking birdwatchers to submit favorite spots by text message. Staffers used Google Fusion Tables to map and report the results.

Mobile devices can also be useful for conducting polls or surveys, whether you’re off-site or trying to reach far-flung constituents. The Echo Mobile app, formerly called mSwali, collects data from clients through SMS surveys and lets you view and analyze results in real time. You can also use text messages to ask constituents to answer survey questions, visit links, or sign petitions. Other live polling platforms that leverage mobile include Poll Everywhere, which has a free basic version but can cost close to $17,000 annually for the most robust option, and Celly, which continues to court the education sector by offering teachers a discounted plan for $60 per year.

Mobile Apps

Want to track attendance and participation at events — for instance, trainings offered by your nonprofit or library? Mobile applications, or “apps,” can be a good option due to their availability and portability. Apps are pieces of software that run on mobile devices — unlike websites, they’re accessible even when phones are not connected to the Internet. Nonprofits can use them to build mobile data collection surveys, but only users who download the apps can participate.

Generally, mobile apps for data collection can be grouped into two types: those for participants, and those for staffers. The first group — which includes tools like SmartConnect (formerly Geniemobile) — can allow attendees to check in, create schedules, and even share notes with other attendees who download the app beforehand. The second — which includes tools like Event Check-in for Constant Contact — can allow staff to use their own phones to take attendance, either by “checking in” registrants or scanning QR codes.

Custom Apps

In some cases, a custom-made mobile app could be useful to help volunteers carry out your nonprofit’s work in the field. Very simple apps can be created for a few thousand dollars, but for a fully customized, detailed application, expect to spend at least $10,000 — a number that can climb into the hundreds of thousands for development and testing depending on the complexity of the application. Consider whether or not the staff time and resources required to build such an app are worth the help it can provide you with data collection. Apps are platform-dependent — those developed for the iPhone won’t work on Android phones or Windows phones, and vice versa — so test the waters and identify your audience before making that choice. (In our experience, custom apps are rarely worth the cost.)

Video Conferencing

Mobile phones or tablets with video-enabled devices also provide a means of outreach, enabling field staff to reach home office staff, hold online meetings, or check in between field visits. For example, a private foster-care and adoption agency partnered with AT&T to provide broadband Internet to foster-care families — the speedy connection allows caseworkers to use videoconference to conduct informal check-ins with clients.

Tools to Convert and Analyze Data

Once you’ve gathered your data, you will need to convert it into an organized, electronic format that can be analyzed or reported. A number of tools can ease this process, especially when you’re faced with a mountain of information that needs to be analyzed.

Optical Character Recognition

If you’ve got lots of paper notes or forms that you’ve collected on-site and you need to get the information into your case management database, try optical character recognition (OCR) software. OCR tools allow handwritten or printed text to be scanned using an external scanner; that image is then converted to machine-readable text that can be searched, analyzed, and imported into the system you use. OCR improves the accuracy of data collected and reduces the time it takes staff to enter the data. The technology isn’t infallible, though — it’s best if staff members take the time to check over the scans and correct them if needed. If you’re on a tight budget, consider freeware OCR software such asOCRFeeder, FreeOCR, Tesseract GUI, or TextRipper.

Qualitative Narrative Analysis

To better understand and analyze non-numerical data, like oral histories, social media data, or focus group notes, you may want software to help. Computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (or CAQDAS) discerns patterns or trends from pages of text. Also known as qualitative narrative analysis software, it automates the coding process through a user-defined “story grammar” that assigns categories and values to narrative content. This software can be expensive and could be of limited use if you only need to analyze a few interviews. Open-source CAQDAS tools include Coding Analysis Toolkit, a free and user-friendly option, and Qiqqa, which helps manage and analyze information stored in PDF documents. Qiqqa also includes a built-in OCR process. If the information you’re trying to analyze is in the form of digital audio or video that hasn’t yet been transcribed, Transana might be useful — it’s open-source, and the developers charge a flat fee of $75 per computer to contribute to its upkeep.

Microsoft Excel

To analyze survey data, consider using a spreadsheet software program like Microsoft Excel to take notes from audio and video recordings. Excel has many advantages, including accessibility, cost, and graphical presentation. Alternatively, you could use OCR software to extract text from written narratives, enter information into a spreadsheet, and code and categorize for thoughts, keywords, and phrases. This process can be helpful when you have a number of narratives to analyze and limited resources to do so.

Choosing the Right Technology

When considering tools to help your nonprofit or library collect and analyze data in the field, start with a strategy to identify and define your goals about the types of data you want to collect. What will be most helpful to gather information about your programs? It’s also important to take into account your budget — not just for purchasing tools, but for additional costs, including training staff on new technology.

The right technology can make a big difference in your ability to better understand the results of your programs. It won’t do the work for you, but it can make it easier to collect relevant data in the most convenient, efficient ways to communicate with constituents and evaluate the programs that serve them. As the world becomes increasingly data driven, it’s more important than ever to equip your nonprofit with the tools and ability it needs to thrive.

Tools to Collect and Analyze Field Data by Soha El Borno