How to find data about your cause area

It’s absolutely critical that your grant applications and other written materials make a compelling case for the need of your nonprofit’s work using available data. But where can you find the data you need to make the case? Below are some examples using federal, state, local, and organizational data to give you ideas on how to use data to make the case for your work. 

American Fact Finder

American Fact Finder is one of the best sources for federal data about your cause area. Just head to the site, and enter in your city or zip code, and quickly you’ll have access to information across a variety of social indicators. 

American Fact  Finder Image

American Fact Finder brings together data primarily from two sources: the US Census and the American Community Survey. 

The US Census is a survey of all households in the US every 10 years, and has a wealth of information about so many facets of American social life. The Census is used by businesses to predict new markets, used by voting commissions to determine electoral college votes, and used by nonprofits to make compelling cases for new funding – and so much more!

The American Community Survey (ACS) is like a mini-census. While the ACS is smaller in scale, it’s more frequent, catching the demographic changes of communities much more precisely than the census. When you need the most up-to-date data and the Census is getting old (at the time of this writing, a grant report in 2019 using 2010 data is just plain out of date) the ACS is the way to go.

City Data 

City data can be a great resource for getting local data on key social indicators. It draws from federal and local sources like the US Census and ACS, but adds more detail and nuance. 

One thing I really like about city-data is the ability to get really quick racial and socioeconomic status data by zip code. I live in Tucker GA – just outside Atlanta – and after going to the cite and typing in my zip code I was able to quickly find the racial and ethnic makeup of my neighborhood.  

City Data - Race and Ethnicity Breakdown, Zip 30084

This can be great for nonprofits looking to tell a story about the community they are serving. These data can quickly help you identify a target population and provide community metrics to support your claims. 

City data also has a wealth of information about housing and real estate data, and can be a helpful place to find information about changing housing trends, gentrification, and other areas of social concern.    

Local city and data archives 

While American Fact Finder and City Data are available everywhere, a lot of the time the best data comes from local and county governments. There is an increasing movement toward building a culture of open data and transparency in government that has led to making data public, open, and accessible. This is great news for nonprofits because it’s becoming easier and easier to find information about your cause area that is local, relevant, and up-to-date. 

For example, Metro Atlanta’s Neighborhood Nexus is a fantastic tool that brings together data across multiple county systems to paint a picture of social, civic, health, and other indicators in the Metro Atlanta region. Here’s a description from their website: 

Neighborhood Nexus was created in 2009 to bring better data to the thousands of decision-makers throughout metro Atlanta. Rapid change in the Atlanta area drives the need for more and better information.  It is a community intelligence system, providing data, tools and expertise as a catalyst to create opportunity for all of the region’s citizens. Our goal is to support a regional network of information-led leaders and residents, government and businesses, advocates and service providers with information, tools and expertise that meet challenges, leverage assets and create opportunity.

Say you’re interested in examining poverty in Atlanta. Here’s a map that looks at poverty by neighborhood, and a graph in the bottom right that examines the relationship between poverty and economic attainment. 

Neighborhood Nexus

Another good example of this is the Quality of Life Explorer in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

One of the great advantages of this tool is that the data are aggregated by neighborhood profile area (NPL) – a smaller geographic area than a zip code. So instead of looking at big areas, you can start to pinpoint the neighborhoods and streets to really get a sense of the particular problem area or population you intend to serve. In the example below, you can see that the overall population of Latino residents in Charlotte, NC is about 12.6% across the county in 2016. But when you look at a specific neighborhood profile area, it jumps to 65.1%. 


I imagine the racial and ethnic makeup of different communities may already be well known to grassroots nonprofit organizations looking to develop programming, advocacy, or other activities serving Latino communities. But often times grant-makers don’t know everything, and having the data to support your claims can help you make the case for resources to target services. 

Organizations in your cause area collect data, too

The sources above – American Fact Finder, City Data, Neighborhood Nexus, and the Quality of Life Explorer – are all great when you want to paint a broad picture about neighborhood wellbeing. But often, the data in these can feel a bit generic, focusing on broad indicators like income, employment, housing, and education. But what if your problem area has a narrower focus? 

Often, the best way to get data on your more narrow cause area is to find out what data leading organizations may be collecting and disseminating. My favorite example of this is the Child Trends Data Bank, a clear leader in child and family wellbeing indicators at the national level. 

Below is an image from their Databank that takes a historical look at child poverty. As you can see, it hasn’t changed much since the social welfare programs of LBJ’s Great Society – hovering just above or below about 20%, depending on the year.  

Children in Poverty 1959-2016, Child Trends

Another great resource for health indicators is the Center for Disease Control. I’m a particular fan of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is a national longitudinal survey of youth risk behaviors. In the table below, you can see data from the 2017 survey showing that in the state of North Carolina, male youth were slightly more likely to smoke cigarettes (14.6%) in comparison to their female peers (9.3%). 

Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Table

Recently, the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness published a state-by-state look at child and family homelessness in their United States of Homelessness report. Take a look at the site and see what data are available in your state. 

North Carolina Student Homelessness by County

Each cause area will have its own leading organizations collecting and sharing data on the cause area. Take some time to do some internet research to find those organizations, explore their data resources (and when available) visualization and mapping tools, and see what data you can find to support your nonprofit’s mission.

Andrew Reynolds