Open Data, GIS, and Nonprofits

The idea behind “open data” is that accessible data promotes government transparency, civic engagement, and the ability of community members to create solutions to problems within their communities. In this way, open data can be a rich resource for nonprofits.

Open data is part of an ongoing initiative for states and cities to enact policies that make data available for public use. Frequently used data includes the locations of public services, data from school districts, city and state budgets, and often, even the shapefiles used for mapping purposes.

In Philadelphia, the open data portal is accessed through OpenDataPhilly.

This portal is a repository of data that is specific to Philadelphia. Currently more than 300 datasets from 55 different organizations are available. The data can be searched by category, agency, and file type. The most common types of data are spreadsheets (.csv), shapefiles for mapping in GIS (.shp), RSS feeds, API documentation, and links to websites (HTML). In many cases, the data appears in multiple formats.

So what are real-world examples of data that nonprofits can access from OpenDataPhilly?

Geography: Building footprints; Congressional district boundaries; Land use; Police service areas; Political wards; Redevelopment certified areas; Rivers and water; Street centerline files; and zoning districts.

Services: Bike share locations; Childcare locations; City health centers; Healthy corner store locations; Hospice locations; Hospital locations; KeySpot locations; Libraries; Older adult centers; Public pools and playgrounds; Recreation facilities; Regional trails (biking and walking); Ryan White treatment providers (HIV clinics); and WIC office locations.

Statistics: Birth and death statistics by Census tract and zip code; city budgets; PSSA test scores; public school statistics; school district budgets; and voter turnout information.

GIS mapping can also be a powerful storytelling tool for nonprofits. While many of the datasets above have spreadsheets (.csv), many also have associated shapefiles. A shapefile (.shp). is geographic data that can be imported into mapping software or online. Spatial information can help nonprofits identify areas of need, areas of opportunity, and areas of change. In addition to OpenDataPhilly, the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access portal is a great resource to find shapefiles specific to Pennsylvania.

More standardized shapefiles can be found through the TIGER/ Line Shapefile portal from the U.S. Census Bureau. Here nonprofits can find census tract boundaries, ZIP codes, school districts, and more for the entire U.S. Nonprofits can use this spatial information to glean insights about questions such as:

  • How close is a location to the nearest elementary school in our service area?
  • How far will a location be from the nearest bus line?
  • How many vacant lots are in a specfic neighborhood?
  • Which watershed does pollution in this area eventually lead into?

In conjunction with census data (also freely available), nonprofits can also map the survey results for each census tract and identify areas where household income is the lowest, or the highest, and see the distribution of this data across the city.

A note on software:

Many nonprofits are facing stretched financial resources. Unfortunately, the industry standard for mapping, ArcGIS, is expensive. A great open source contender that nonprofits can use instead is the mapping software Quantum GIS, or QGIS for short. This program features a large online community and is constantly updated and improved. For nonprofits interested in learning more about GIS, a great introduction resource can be found in Anita Graser’s Learning QGIS.


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Are you a giver, taker, or matcher?

Have you ever exchanged business cards with a new contact at a networking event only to never hear from them again? This often happens when both people interact solely with the mindset of “how can this person help me?”

Adam Grant, a renowned organizational psychology researcher and the youngest tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that the most successful people are those who help others, even if the rewards for helping aren’t immediately clear. Grant’s book Give or Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success landed among the New York Times best-seller list in 2013. His research offers a roadmap for nonprofit professionals to create relationships along a broad and deep spectrum.

Grant separates the worldview of people who help others in a professional setting into three distinct groups – givers, takers, and matchers.

  • Givers – give more than they get, with no expectation of return. Givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them. Actions include giving help, sharing credit, and making introductions. Outside the workplace this behavior is common. But inside the workplace, givers are rare.
  • Takers – help others strategically, when the benefits to them outweigh the personal costs.
  • Matchers – willing to help others but expect something in return. Fairness and reciprocity govern matchers’ values. Most people fall in this group.

Grant discovered that people who occupy the bottom of the success ladder are givers, partly because they’re “too trusting and too willing to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others.” ¹

Who occupies the top of the success ladder? Givers again.

Grant found that takers and matchers are more likely to land in the middle of the success ladder. It’s important to understand Grant’s research found that takers, matchers, and givers all can – and do – achieve success. But the distinction occurs in what happens when givers succeed. Their success ripples to other people and often compounds into greater success. Everyone benefits. When takers win, someone else loses.

How can givers inhabit both the top and bottom of the success ladder?

Essentially being a giver can be inefficient in the short-term but very productive over time. In the immediate, givers can be so focused on helping others that they can spread themselves too thin or neglect their own interests. For example Grant found that givers who worked in sales brought in less revenue than other sales people early on. ² These salespeople were more focused on their customers’ needs rather than trying to sell them on features and upgrades they didn’t need. But a year later the same salespeople earned the highest revenue. Customers returned to these salespeople consistently because of the excellent service they received before. And they shared their positive experiences with new people, who also became acquainted with the “giver” salespeople. Nonprofit leaders seeking to build more relationships on a deep and broad level, adopting a giver mindset can provide the best framework.

How matchers and takers give differently than givers

Takers and matchers also give within their networks, but in very different ways. Most people, including nonprofit leaders, are matchers. Grant’s research shows that matchers and takers help those who they think can help them in the near future. The disadvantage is that it’s difficult to determine who will be able to help most in the future. In Give & Take, Grant shares anecdotes from his research about givers who helped people who, at the time, did not have resources of value to the giver. However, over time they had a lot more to offer and returned favors to the giver, often in much more substantial ways.

It’s important to understand that “givers” typically give much more than they receive. This is because giving isn’t a strategy to get something tangible back, but more akin to a philosophy that embraces helping others to succeed. However, this approach ultimately does leave givers successful in the long-run, and with a steady support system of connections who are ready and willing to help if needed.

Grant’s research offers nonprofit professionals a roadmap to create and strengthen relationships both internally and externally. Nonprofit professionals can adopt Grant’s approach to connect with other organizational leaders across sector, develop better relationships with funders, or deepen relationships internally with staff and Board.

¹ Grant, Adam. Give & Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success
² Grant, Adam. The Atlantic “How to Succeed Professionally by Helping Others”


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