How Can Foundations Invest in Building Local Data Capacity?

A publication of the Local Data for Equitable Communities Resource Hub

Investing directly in local data capacity works

Local data can be a powerful tool for people and organizations to improve their communities. To leverage the power of local data, communities need capacity-building investments. The Urban Institute (Urban) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) demonstrated through recent grantmaking initiatives that a successful strategy for building community data capacity (PDF) is to directly support communities in using data to further their goals.

Urban and RWJF partnered in 2020 on the Data for COVID-19 Response and Recovery grant program, which provided $40,000 grants to 17 local nonprofit organizations to use data to inform COVID-19 response and recovery in their communities. National and place-based foundations can learn from our experience and invest in the places and outcomes they care about by funding projects that will use data to achieve local priorities. In so doing, communities will accomplish their specific project activities in the short term and improve their ability to use data to make progress on community goals in the future.

Using data to address an immediate need builds ongoing data capacity

A key reason for the 2020 grant program’s success was its broad parameters and limited constraints, based in trust that local nonprofits know the needs of their communities. Grantees proposed projects to use data to inform pandemic response and recovery in their communities, without requirements such as using a specific type of data or working on a specific community condition or topic. Projects responded to immediate local needs and priorities and were not driven by a prescriptive framework created by Urban or RWJF. Through their projects, the grantees strengthened the data capacity of the people and organizations who continue to work on improving their communities.

As one example, Data You Can Use (DYCU) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recognized the need for community members to understand the health and economic conditions of their neighborhoods and how these affected COVID-19 rates across the city. DYCU engaged the community through an innovative new method called Data Chats to draw out residents’ perspectives and interpretations of data. More than 100 people participated in one of the DYCU Data Chats, learning how to interpret, communicate, and use data to successfully advocate for community needs, such as a neighborhood-based COVID-19 testing location. Data Chats are now a core methodology of DYCU projects, and the organization partnered with Urban to publish a guidebook for other communities that want to implement a similar model.

In Houston, Texas, Urban Harvest partnered with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University to support people’s access to healthy, local food. Urban Harvest interviewed residents about their experiences with food insecurity, which led to the launch of a mobile food market to serve residents’ needs. The grant helped Urban Harvest expand its capacity to use data across its operations. The organization now combines what it hears from residents with administrative data to make decisions about where to locate the mobile market and who to partner with when bringing the market to a new community.

Local nonprofits are eager to build their capacity and use data

The 2020 grant program only began to meet the demand and interest in the field for direct investments in building local data capacity to address inequities. Our experience with the more than 30 cities in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership demonstrates that there is great interest across the country in using data for change. In order to build on this work and reach more communities, Urban and RWJF partnered to launch the Using Local Data to Address Structural Racism grant program in September 2022.

The program provides 38 local nonprofit organizations with $40,000 grants for nine-month projects and supports grantees in using data to improve community conditions that have been shaped by structural racism. Based on insights from the 2020 grant program, this new initiative invited proposals that were responsive to local needs, with broad parameters on how grantees could use data locally and what topics or community conditions projects could address.

With this initiative, we sought to invest in building local data capacity in new places by inviting any US–based nonprofit to apply. With more than 450 proposal submissions, the response to this grant opportunity was enormous and indicates a clear interest among nonprofit organizations in using data to move their missions forward. We are currently supporting and learning from the newest grantees as they apply data to further their community goals and build their communities’ data capacity along the way.

National foundations have significant power to drive thinking and agendas through their investments, and these grant programs are showing that national foundations can make progress in building local data capacity. Local foundations have roles in this space too, such as investing directly in projects in the places they serve and supporting local nonprofits in adapting and applying the examples of projects and practices that have proven successful in other communities.

Follow along with us in this space for more writing about these ideas and grant projects that are underway



A resource hub, curated by the Urban Institute and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), that highlights how local communities can use data and information to respond equitably and effectively to long-standing racial disparities and structural inequities.

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