What’s the story of the social sector? And perhaps more fundamentally, what is the social sector? In the United States, the social sector employs over 12 million people (roughly the combined populations of New York City and Los Angeles) and generates more than $3.7 trillion in aggregate annual revenue (a sum greater than President Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure package). To begin to tell this story, today Candid is launching its U.S. Social Sector Dashboard. The dashboard serves as an annually updated, publicly accessible tool that provides definitional context and data about the organizations, money, and people that make up the sector in the United States.
Why a dashboard? Why this dashboard?
Making data available to those who need it is core to Candid’s mission. One way we do this is through tools like GuideStar and Foundation Directory, which typically serve specific users working in the social sector who are looking to answer specific questions. Candid’s data about organizations and grantmaking is also powerful in the aggregate, going beyond specific use cases to answer fundamental questions about the size and the scope of the nonprofit and social sectors. At Candid we saw an opportunity and felt a responsibility to provide an approachable, holistic picture, democratizing data that can be useful for organizational benchmarking or context-setting for research and journalism.
For a tool calling itself the ‘U.S. Social Sector Dashboard’, more explanation about what the social sector actually is, is in order. Both those of us who are ostensibly part of the sector as well as more general audiences could benefit from a foundational understanding of what the sector is and how the various parts of it are related.
Combining data with definition
The dashboard we’re releasing today represents a first chapter—a visual overview of the social sector combining the two main elements of data and definition. The dashboard provides explanatory content with accessible data, complementing some recent, well-researched contributions to the U.S. nonprofit sector knowledge base from Independent Sector, Nonprofit Quarterly, and the Urban Institute, among others.
We seek to describe what we mean by the “social sector” in the United States—essentially, private action for public good, including but not limited to nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS. The data highlights three levels of analysis: the organizations, money or financial flows, and people that make up the sector. In addition to visualizations, the dashboard includes CSV downloads of the data presented.
Challenges in telling the full story
A guiding principle for the dashboard is to create the “full story” of the social sector. It’s a goal that we’ll continue to pursue, but the reality is that we only have organizational-level data for the nonprofit sector at this time. This allows us to analyze this subset of the social sector in much greater detail than we’d able to for, say, cooperatives or churches/religious organizations.
Capturing the full story also means going beyond a single source or research organization to combine multiple pieces of data and analysis that build a holistic picture. For this version of the dashboard, we primarily relied on Candid’s data from regulatory and self-reported sources but also included a modest amount of data from Giving USA and employment figures from Johns Hopkins’ Center for Civil Society Studies. Considering various strands of data and research not as siloed data sets, but as complementary components of a larger story, is critical. This interweaving allows us to understand the relative contributions of donor-advised funds (DAFs) to charities, for example, or how social businesses stack up against the usual suspects of tax-exempt nonprofits in their impact on social good. But this type of approach also requires extra care to ensure that we’re not drawing the wrong conclusions in piecing together different data and analyses. We anticipate that balancing research ambition with careful data stewardship will be a recurring theme as we continue to develop the full story.
The “big tent” nature of the social sector and the future of the dashboard
The siloization of data and research across the social sector is not particularly surprising: the social sector, including the nonprofit sector, is a big tent. Spanning organizations with widely different budget sizes, financial models, regulatory requirements, and social missions, in many cases it makes sense to focus on a particular subset of organizations or dive deep on a particular metric. Our social sector dashboard illustrates this vastness, this “some of these things are not like the others” quality. You see it in the list of the top largest nonprofits, ordered by expenses (virtually all these organizations are hospitals or health systems) or the number of registered nonprofits by revenue tier (the vast majority earn less than $50,000 in a year).
The U.S. Social Sector Dashboard provides opportunity to go both broader and deeper in future iterations. One specific area we’d like to explore in the future are different organization types—what do some of the analyses we’ve included look like when you limit the set to organizations led by people of color? Arts organizations? Those with revenues less than $1 million? We’ll continue to build the story, and the data we bring to bear on that story, and we’d love to hear your ideas. What questions are you looking to answer about the social sector? And how might we help? Please email us [email protected] with your questions and feedback.
Join us for a webinar on October 27 for a detailed introduction to Candid’s U.S. Social Sector Dashboard, along with examples on how you can use it in your work.