Data is vitally important to most nonprofits. It is a key component for seeking grant funds, gives a clear picture of community needs, and informs the strategic decisions agencies make about how to tackle social issues like hunger and homelessness.
The problem: Culling useful data typically comes with a large price tag, putting it out of reach for many Connecticut nonprofits operating with limited resources.
According to entrepreneur Christopher Brechlin, customizable database software typically costs more than $10,000 a year. On top of that, many of the readily available options are cumbersome to use, taking a large chunk of staff time from organizations already dealing with limited staff.
After witnessing the problem firsthand, Brechlin last fall launched Blueprint for Impact, a company that offers a suite of web-based services to nonprofits to help them better access, analyze, and use data.
Blueprint for Impact sells interactive charts, maps, reports, and databases that assess community needs.
Brechlin launched the Hartford-based business in November 2013 and said clients most often use the software to examine program data on a community-wide level. Seeing data in maps and charts helps them see what programs exist in a community and where there are gaps that should to be filled.
The software “makes it really clear what the need looks like, at as finite a level as possible,” Brechlin said.
That way, instead of launching a program they think is needed, nonprofits are able to make more informed choices and know they are investing in programs the community really needs, he added.
Brechlin said he brings together as many stakeholders as he can during the data-gathering process, to paint the most comprehensive picture of a community he can. When working on a 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness in the Windham region, for instance, he sought input from realtors, landlords, homeless shelter operators, and others.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve seen that kind of data together in one place,” said client Leigh Duffy, executive director of the Windham Region No Freeze Project, a shelter for the homeless. The nonprofit has been using Blueprint for Impact software since Brechlin launched it last year.
The level of detail has been particularly helpful, Duffy said. Staff can see housing-related data, such as properties available to rent, on a street-by-street basis if they want to, she said. The agency also has access to data on poverty levels, income figures, and other economic indicators, all in one place.
Having so much information at their fingertips has allowed them to more easily apply for grants, helping them illustrate the community’s need, she said.
“For us (working to end homelessness) in this region, it has been really helpful to be able to use the database,” she said. “It’s pretty comprehensive. It has been a really terrific tool.”
Brechlin, 27, of Meriden, hatched the idea for his company after working at the Nonprofit Alliance of Northeast Connecticut (NANC) in Willimantic as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America) a few years ago.
NANC, which works to help nonprofits build their capacity, was searching for new database software. In helping them, Brechlin got a test license for a database that would help, but hit a roadblock when he realized that after a year-long free trial the software would cost the nonprofit $15,000 a year to maintain.
“I wanted to find a way to make it really sustainable and affordable for them,” he said.
Prices vary for Blueprint for Impact’s services, since they are tailored to each nonprofit’s specific needs. Fees for some services, though, are listed on his website: interactive charts are $250, interactive maps $750 and interactive reports start at $1,750.
A key difference between his business model and others, Brechlin said, is there is an upfront cost to build databases but no annual fees to maintain them. He also trains nonprofits’ employees to be able to manage the data in-house. “That way it becomes much more sustainable,” he said.
To keep costs down he uses open data sources and open-source software whenever possible.
His tools can work for “any type of social issue” and since its launch, nonprofits have used Blueprint for Impact to generate $4 million to build affordable housing in northeastern Connecticut, according to Brechlin.
In all, the company has built data tools for more than 30 community organizations that focus on various social issues, he said.
Brechlin is part of a new business movement in Connecticut being spearheaded by reSET, Social Enterprise Trust, a Hartford nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs create and grow Benefit Corporations. Benefit Corporations are a new corporate structure approved by the legislature earlier in 2014 that helps companies operate for the benefit of the public while also being able to accept investment while maintaining control of their mission.
“I want this to be a global company,” he said of Blueprint for Impact. “My plan is to scale it as far and wide as I possibly can.”