Own Your Data



Own Your Data (or it will own YOU!) - Data Management for Nonprofits Pt. 1

Are you a nonprofit leader often struggling with (or tiptoeing around) questions of how to manage your data, wondering why you're collecting all this information that doesn't tell you anything, or simply wondering what people mean when they talk about "Information Management" and whether it's worth your attention? Read on...

Data Management vs the trendier "Information Management"

As I was thinking through this article, I paused to wonder why writing "data management" felt so awkward and unfamiliar after working in the business & tech industry for more years than I'd like to admit. It dawned on me that it is because it's more commonly referred to as "Information Management". Technical definitions of "Data Management" or "Information Management" may vary from person to country to organization to dictionary but based on my experience (and often too true for smaller to medium nonprofits) "Information Management" is more of an aspirational state whereby your data is organized enough that it's already informing you of stuff you should know about your state of affairs, fundraising goals, operations and so on. Data management, i.e. managing the raw data that you collect, would enable you to make that data "informative".

Why is "Data Management" so important?

Whether you're a smaller nonprofit with 5-10 full time staff and an army of volunteers, or you've left those (glorious?) days behind you and find yourself trying to remember the names of 20-50 colleagues (and their partners, dogs and children), there are multi-fold advantages to managing your data so that you can turn it into information, and turn that information into decisions.

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  • Growth/Disinvestment Decisions: Do you feel that the # of hats you're wearing on the job has, over the years, grown from 3, 4 or 5 to more than you'd find in the new Kohl's Summer Collection? Does your average work day find you entering data into your accounting system, having face time with the populations you serve and making several pots of coffee? It may be time for your organization to add a new hire, but scarcely is it easy to make sound budgeting arguments that begin and end with "I'm so overworked!" Showing the growth in the number of entries you're entering into Quickbooks, the number of clients you met with last year versus this, or (less compellingly) how many cups of coffee Susan drinks in a day but never makes herself can help your Executive Director or Board identify the need for a dedicated accounting associate, more program staff or a (part-time?) administrative assistant. Moreover, showing growth in the number of clients you serve in your housing rehabilitation program, versus a decline in the number of folks walking in for employment assistance may create an argument for ramping down and referring out candidates for the latter program and free up an FTE budget (sorry Susan!) for skills that are in short supply.
  • What's working/what isn't? Albert Einstein said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results". You may increasingly invest funds in a program, an annual fundraising drive, a new online tool or whatever you feel is going to take your impact to the next level, but without a proper feedback loop, how do you know that those dollars are being wisely invested? Observations and anecdotal feedback can go a long way in uncovering the underlying story, but well-organized data can be the early predictor that prevents you from waiting too long to correct course (or conversely, invest more) if something isn't working out.
  • A compelling quantifiable story: Few nonprofits struggle to find compelling stories of impact that they've had on the communities they served. There's Eddie who came from humble means, but with their programs, became the first in the family to go to college. Then there's Judith who broke free from the vicious web of substance abuse and prison. Who can forget Juan, an asylee who fled violence to start afresh, and is thriving in school and well on track to establishing his own startup? Stories are compelling and capture the hearts and imagination of your population. However, your long-time, repeat donors (and potential funders) have heard those stories several times over, and are more keen to see the incremental impact of their dollar investments, whether it be the number of people served, the outcomes of your services or the longevity and sustainability of those outcomes. Data, when organized to deliver those insights, can be at your fingertips in a mere few clicks, freeing you to spend less time crunching numbers and more time discovering new stories and filling out applications for new grants!

Why is Data Management so challenging?

So you've decided that you want to take a hard look at your organization's data, i.e. examine all the data you're collecting, where/how you're storing it, how you're using it and how it relates to each other.

What are the likely obstacles you're going to run into?

  • You're not a technology native: If you founded a nonprofit to address a social cause, chances are that your prior career wasn't in managing databases, reporting or analytics (unless your nonprofit was instituted to address the scourge of insufficient RAM), and you probably worked directly with the populations that your organization is now serving. In other words, you're probably not a tech geek, and the benefits of data management and optimization may not be intuitive per se. In addition, your first 5-10 hires would probably be program managers, or something in that capacity, and only if you're lucky, one of them would come with an adequate technical background to be able to develop and execute on a data strategy, but possibly not.

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  • There's always a fire to put out: Given the climate that most smaller and medium sized nonprofits operate in, whether it's keeping up those fundraising figures, effervescent grant-funding, seasonality of operations or a moody board of directors, it isn't wholly unusual for an organization and its staff to be moving from one crisis to another, with few moments to breathe in between. Unsexy projects such as organizing and managing your data are unlikely to make it to the top of your priorities without adequate internal motivation or a strong external push.
  • Farewell Susan!: Let's face it... you're probably not making a Wall Street paycheck working that nonprofit job, and when another equally fulfilling opportunity comes along with a slightly higher compensation that might help you pay off your student loans in less than 3 lifetimes, you'd be unwise not to take it. In a for-profit context, it would take poor management to confine all responsibilities for a certain function to one person, but in a nonprofit context, the same person wearing many hats is a reality, nay necessity. When said person leaves, the two week notice period is barely sufficient to transition open tasks, updates on ongoing projects and so on to an already overburdened colleague, let alone share the 4-year history of everything you ever worked on, and where the details of that journey lives. And thus disappears with a desktop or into a google drive the evidence of the impact that you had.

I want to take control of my data! Where do I begin?

Based on the size, culture, resources and enthusiasm of the organization attempting to take back control, I approach the challenge with either of three (broad) approaches...

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article (because frankly, I ramble, and it's too much to read in one go)

Until then, use the comments below to share your own thoughts, tips or non-proprietary strategies for dealing with the data monster...


Image 1: Young woman screaming under workload - Jana Svojsova | Canon EOS 5D Mark II | 1/160s, f 16.0, ISO 100, 85 mm | Licensed under CC0 Public Domain (https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=16493&picture=overwhelmed-employee)

Image 2: IT Crowd | Season 4, Episode 5 :"Bad Boys" | Dir. Ash Atalia. Perf. Chris O'Dowd, Katherine Parkinson

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