Data Culture Project + The Telluride Foundation — a Case Study

Catherine D'Ignazio (she/ella)
3 min readMar 21, 2018

The Data Culture Project is a hands-on learning program to kickstart a data culture within your organization. This case study features one nonprofit organization’s experience using this program to build a data culture. Read more real stories on our website.

The Telluride Foundation is a philanthropic organization serving the Telluride community located amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, USA. The foundation grants funds to local nonprofit organizations across health, arts, education, athletics, conservation and other sectors, and every year the Telluride Foundation collects outcome data from the nonprofits that convey the scope and effectiveness of their programs.

A philanthropic organization serving the Telluride community located amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, USA.

Data is central to the Telluride Foundation’s operations, as it allows them to evaluate the impact of their program spending and it helps the organization to convince donors and the larger public of its value and success. But even though everyone at the foundation is aware of the importance of data, only a few staff in leadership positions regularly access the data, and the nonprofit organizations the Telluride Foundation provides funding to don’t tend to have a lot of experience with data.

The Telluride Foundation’s Donor and Strategic Initiatives Director Erika Lapsys was inspired to test out the Data Culture Project’s slate of activities because she wanted the foundation and their nonprofit partners to cultivate a more scientific approach to data collection and to increase accountability and reliability of their data. As part of DCP’s pilot program, she gathered participants from the Telluride Foundation and their nonprofit partners for brown bag lunch workshops — held once a month for three months — where everyone would learn key concepts around data and practice them with fun activities.

Erika said that the DCP workshops were instrumental in revealing how simple data skills and techniques could be used directly in the nonprofit partners’ ongoing work. Participants uploaded their own data sets into DataBasic and started to glean insights and ideas for telling stories. Through practice they also cultivated a sensitivity toward data and had a keener instinct about how they could use data to make arguments to key stakeholders.

“We did a final exercise with the group where we pulled up data on our arts and culture organizations as a whole and showed visualizations of that data (bar graphs, line graphs, scatterplots) and asked the group to pretend they were the Telluride Foundation grants committee looking at the data,” Erika said. “As this group of stakeholders, what questions should they be asking about the data in front of them and what arguments could they make about what they saw? It was a fun discussion and afterwards several participants told me that they really were looking at their data completely differently. Where they were used to telling stories about individual participants’ transformations within their programs, now they were using those stories and incorporating data into them. Really thrilled to hear that!”

The workshops ended right before annual progress reports were due, and Erika said she has already noticed a marked improvement in the quality of data being reported by nonprofit partners to the foundation.

“For the first time, the numbers were consistent,” she said. “They are adding up and were not just ‘happy round numbers.’ The nonprofits were paying attention. We asked them to describe how they’re collecting data, and they were able to articulate how they collected data much better than in the past. This helped us create a better reporting process.”

Going forward, Erika says the Telluride Foundation will continue working to build a data culture by practicing new concepts and running more Data Culture Project activities as they are published.

The Data Culture Project is a self-service, free, online learning program for nonprofits, newsrooms and libraries to kickstart their data culture.

We are grateful to the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society for supporting the development of the Data Culture Project. The Data Culture Project is headed by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D’Ignazio, undertaken as a collaboration between the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Engagement Lab@Emerson College, and with the assistance of Becky Michelson (project manager), Jon Elbaz & Constance Yee (research assistants).



Catherine D'Ignazio (she/ella)

Associate Prof of Urban Science and Planning, Dept of Urban Studies and Planning. Director, Data + Feminism Lab @ MIT.