The Cultural Data Project: Where Arts Nonprofits Meet Big Data

How can we demonstrate our value to the communities we serve? How can we improve our financial management? How does our nonprofit stack up against our peers next door — or 1,000 miles away, for that matter?

For your typical nonprofit executive director, these can be perennial and oftentimes vexing questions. Vexing, because while for-profit businesses can afford to hire "big data" consultants or commission benchmark studies, most nonprofits lack that luxury. And even if they could afford these services, the nonprofit sector lags behind their for-profit counterparts in terms of scale. For-profit businesses can draw from seemingly limitless amounts of research tools, raw data sets, and analyst reports. Nonprofits can't.

Check that. Nonprofits couldn't.

Presenting the Cultural Data Project (CDP), a resource that enables arts and cultural organizations to enter financial, programmatic, and operational data into a standardized online form. Organizations can then use the CDP to produce a variety of reports designed to help increase management capacity, identify strengths and challenges, and inform decision-making. They can also generate reports to be included as part of the application processes to participating grantmakers.

Before we take a closer look at how the CDP can help nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, a brief history lesson is in order.

In 2013, the CDP broke free from its original home, the Pew Charitable Trust, to become a standalone nonprofit. Since then, it launched a national board, secured additional funding, and rolled out ambitious plans to quantify, articulate, and streamline the value of the arts and culture across different regions.

Many major foundations are on board. A cursory glance of their partners include, but are certainly not limited to, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Jerome Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Doris Duke, Kresge, National Dance Project, and many, many more.

Some of these foundations have given to the CDP, while others, including countless governmental arts agencies, let users apply for their grants through the CDP.

The CDP has a footprint in all 50 states and some foundations choose to give locally, where the gift can have the greatest impact. For example, the Hewlett Foundation awarded a $450,000 grant to the California Cultural Data Project in July of 2014. Kresge, meanwhile, awarded a three-year $150,000 grant to the Michigan Cultural Data Project in 2013.

Joining the CDP is free and somewhat painless. Nonprofits register and fill out a Data Profile, an in-depth overview that looks at the organization's mission, finances, and more granular pieces of data like the number of attendees at events, marketing expenses, and salary information. The Data Profile consists of nearly 300 questions and requires 15 to 30 hours to complete (we warned you it was only "somewhat" painless).

The payoff, however, is pretty cool. CDP crunches the data and creates a host of valuable reports, which include:

  • A Program Revenue and Marketing Expense Report, which explores the relationship between marketing expenses and attendance figures.
  • A Personnel Report, which outlines costs associated with staffing, salaries and benefits.
  • A Contributed Revenue and Fundraising Expense Report, which examines how changes in fundraising expenses effect contributed revenue.

Then there's the benchmarking functionality. Users can tailor comparison reports according to detailed specifications. For example, a mid-sized dance company can see how their expenses compare to those of their peers.

Furthermore, with the Data Profile in place, organizations can apply for multiple foundation grants through the CDP interface. In fact, most funders who support the CDP require nonprofits submit their Data Profiles and a customized report with their grant applications. And there is your answer to "What do foundations get out of it?" The CDP broadens their reach and simplifies the grant evaluation process on the back-end.

We admit, it's a lot to digest. We've tried to touch on the more relevant points, but if you're remotely interested, do yourself a favor and visit the CDP site. Considering who's behind the project, it seems practically inevitable that it will transform the way arts nonprofits manage their organizations and apply for grants.