June 6, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:15 am

UConn building 'data collaborative' for nonprofits

Linda Friedman, program manager for UConnís Nonprofit Leadership Program in the Center for Continuing Studies, and David Garvey, director of the nonprofit leadership program, are teaming up to build a searchable nonprofit database.

The University of Connecticut has been chosen by the Connecticut Health and Education Facilities Authority to develop the "Connecticut Data Collaborative," a shared, web-based tool for nonprofits and state policy makers.

Until recently, the effort was known as the Connecticut Nonprofit Strategy Platform. It is part of an initiative taken by the Urban Institute and it seeks to consolidate a wide range of information on nonprofits and make that information easily available.

Directing UConn's development of the platform is David Garvey, director of the university's Nonprofit Leadership Program.

Garvey has a long list of goals to meet and his target completion date is 2013.

When complete, the program will be able to identify the appropriate nonprofit for each specific need in a given community, using overlay mapping similar to that used by land use professionals. Garvey said the fully operational platform will be maintained with only about $5,000 per year for data updates.

The platform will assess the performance of the state's nonprofits and will make it easier for nonprofits to find each other and work together. It will also analyze the finances of nonprofits.

Nonprofits can be a little prickly about disclosing their finances, however. By law, they must disclose some financial information to the Internal Revenue Service annually in a form called the 990. The form is publicly available, but not particularly easy for the average citizen to find.

The platform will use 990 data to assess the financial health of Connecticut nonprofits and make that data easily accessible to the public and state legislators and policy makers, Garvey said.

While it's a bit early in the process for pushback from nonprofits, Garvey said, "The question has come up," as to how much financial information is disclosed.

"The way we look at this is it is public information, and we have to look at the harsh realities of Connecticut. The 990 is one number taken at a point in time; it's not the complete story of a nonprofit. It's low hanging fruit, so let's get that out there," Garvey said. "Do we want to add more data? More quantitative data? Yes."

Ron Cretaro, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits, said the system will not only allow legislators and policy makers to more easily decide which agencies fit best with state efforts, it will allow potential donors to look up information about individual nonprofit agencies, some of which are small, narrowly focused and tend to fly under the radar.

"We'll be able to demonstrate the economic impact of nonprofits," Cretaro said. "We've been hungry for this kind of information to all be pulled together. It's an achievement of collaboration."

Still, "not a lot of nonprofits know this is happening yet," Cretaro said. And when it comes to sharing financial information, "there are going to be some that shy away from that."

"Their board meetings are still private. We encourage them to be public as much as possible, but they are still private entities," Cretaro said. "Policy makers have asked from time to time if (nonprofits) should be subject to FOI (the Freedom of Information Act). If there's a state contract, yes. But this is still getting cranked up. We don't want to freak people out."

For Jim Williamson, president of the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, any freak-outs will be outweighed by the benefits of a consolidated, easily accessible database.

"This is one of the most difficult states to access usable data, because we don't have a county structure," Williamson said. "This will be very helpful in planning if it begins to address that issue."

Carol Walter, executive of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said even the simply stated potential of the new system is promising.

"Groups of nonprofits tend to operate in silos. We don't cross the bridge to other services," Walter said. "It's not for not wanting to, but a lot of nonprofits are busy putting out fires and keeping our heads above water. A platform like this could be really beneficial because you're able to go to one place."

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