If you’re a small charity wondering if you can make more of data to drive your mission forward, these four questions should help you define a winning strategy for your data journey.
Even the smallest charities usually deal with surprising amounts of data on their services, fundraising, communications, research and other activities. But knowing how to use this information to improve decision making can be complicated and require specialist knowledge.
Fortunately, small charities can make use of this valuable untapped resource by figuring out a data strategy that helps them map their journey.
The first concrete steps to a data strategy should be based around asking the following basic questions:
What questions do you want to answer?
What do you want to know? This is the starting point for any data journey, where your charity should start to identify some high-level goals around you data use and then drill down into the kinds of nagging questions you want to answer with data.
The goal could be anything from increasing the reach of your services or identifying people’s barriers to using them, to increasing the amount you fundraise or getting more frequent supporters.
What data will you collect and how will you collect it?
User data, supporter data, engagement data about who is using your services, how and for how long, what the outcomes of your work are, the feedback people are giving, your long-term impact data... these are just a few different types of data your charity might collect or want to collect. Once you know the burning questions, the next step is to identify the possible data sources that might be useful in your quest for actionable answers.
Where there are gaps, consider how you will collect the data you need. At last year’s Charity Digital Tech Conference, we heard from Kate White and Sorrel Parsons from small charity consultants Superhighways who talked about some of the tools and methods that small charities can use to capture different data sources - many of these tools are low cost or free.
Also consider also what existing external data sets might be out there that you can make use of to combine with what you already have – for example, demographic data, NHS health data, or data on employment. Many open data sets are available for free use by charities (we’ve gathered a few of them here).
Over time you will need to monitor the quality of the data, correcting any errors or missing fields and ensuring that it’s kept in compatible formats.
How will you store and manage data?
Data has no value until it can be collated and organised in a meaningful way. Choosing and building your system is an important step. This includes not only tools for storage and management but your processes and policies.
This stage is also crucial to risk management - you will need to define a policy on how you will comply with data protection law like GDPR – the NCVO and regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office have some charity-specific guidance on this.
Next, you will need to choose a system for collection and organisation. An obvious choice might be to explore the reporting capabilities that a CRM system can have, or other similar software, but it can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet to start off with.
If you choose to go down the CRM route, ensure you have a plan in place for how you will maintain that system, how you will train staff to use it, who will have access to different levels of data, and whether you will be analysing the data within the software itself or transporting it to a different system.
It’s important to involve staff in developing the system so that you can get buy-in throughout the process, and regularly review your system, gaining feedback from users and key stakeholders.
How will you transform data into change?
Once you’ve started collecting a significant quantity of data over time, this is where things get exciting – once you are at this stage you can start to plug in data science to start carrying out analysis about your service users and supporters. However, you will need people onboard who can understand the data you are analysing, ask the right questions and interpret the results.
This will take the form of recruiting people for data analysis or getting outside help and training. Recruiting specifically for trustees who understand digital or have a data-related background can help you gain buy-in for your charity’s data projects and gain more technical connections who might help.
DataKind UK is an organisation dedicated to helping small charities make the best use of the data they have by connecting them with data experts, helping them make use of advanced algorithms.
They’ve helped charities like the Welcome Centre, an independent food bank on a small income, to make use of machine learning models to better serve the needs of people in crisis. Data scientist volunteers from DataKind UK looked at who was using the services and worked to identify people at risk of becoming dependent on the food bank and provide early intervention that helps them out of the cycle of food poverty.