The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 12, 2017

Social change at scale: How nonprofits can leverage data to make smarter decisions

October 12, 2017

When people think of the tech industry, they typically conjure images of Silicon Valley–based search engines and smartphone apps. But nonprofits can be tech companies, too, according to Crisis Text Line founder and CEO Nancy Lublin. At a discussion on September 26 at the Urban Institute, Lublin explained how nonprofit leaders can apply data science practices common within the tech sector to optimize and expand their organizations.

Launched in 2013, Crisis Text Line is a tech nonprofit and is the first and only national, 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline. It originated when Lublin recognized an interesting trend while leading another tech nonprofit, DoSomething.org, a teen-oriented social change organization. When the organization sent out texts to hundreds of thousands of young people about a new volunteer campaign, they sometimes received texts in response. The texts were often from teens expressing anxiety, fear, depression, and a desire for help. Lublin felt compelled to respond—and at scale.

Operating in all US area codes within four months of launch, Crisis Text Line employs a chief data scientist with a dedicated team who helped build a data system unique to the needs of the organization. The system, or “data corpus” as Lublin calls it, has processed almost 50 million text messages since its inception, most of which are fielded by a largely volunteer base of crisis counselors.

Nancy Lublin

Nancy Lublin speaks at a discussion hosted by the Urban Insitute last month. Photo by Avik Ray.

The data collected provide critical information that informs organizational management and system optimization, allowing Crisis Text Line to serve even more people. Lublin also recognized the value of the data to other parts of the crisis support ecosystem—such as police departments, elected officials, and schools—and made the data publicly available on CrisisTrends.org. The site provides real-time information by crisis type, geography, and time of day, helping identify patterns.

Lublin offered a few lessons for how nonprofits can best leverage data to get smarter and improve their services.

  • Consider your organization as an organism. Lublin said her team often considers Crisis Text Line an organism with nerves that require inputs, or data, to adapt and thrive. Lublin cited the “three Vs” common in the tech world—volume, velocity, and variety—to describe the importance of cultivating rich data that can make the system smarter and more nimble.
  • Make data available to the whole company. Data shouldn’t be accessible only to leadership, and staff shouldn’t have to request it from a designated custodian. Instead, Lublin suggested that data should be considered a well from which all staff can drink. Employing the popular data science phrase “ETL”—extract, transform, and load—Lublin discussed how a regularly updated data warehouse available to all staff allows everyone to make informed decisions in their work.
  • Enhance your product using data, then policies, then people. As with many tech leaders, Lublin approaches improvement by examining the product, or the data corpus. Upon its improvement, she and her team consider implications for system governance policies and how to train and support staff accordingly.    

To learn more about using data for social change, watch the webcast of the event.

Nancy Lublin (left) speaks with Shena Ashley, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. Photo by Avik Ray.

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