Data is a magical ingredient that needs to be brought together with other data in order for chemistry to happen - here’s why integrating your systems to break down data silos is important, and what to do about it
The term ’data silo’ is common techy-sounding jargon that’s thrown around as a problem to be tackled in many charities. But what exactly does it mean in real terms? When data within a charity is ’siloed’, it’s marooned in unconnected systems, is not being shared across teams or departments, and can’t easily be accessed by other parts of the organisation that need it.
Of course, not everyone needs access to all the information in an organisation, and security measures such as user access management mean that some siloes are deliberate. But when something impedes the flow of data from one system to another, this can mean that important insights are missed that could improve a charity’s decision making and help it innovate and grow.
For charities that want to make better use of data to support the choices they make and improve fundraising and service delivery, siloed data is a wasted resource that means potentially transformative pieces of the puzzle are being swept under the rug.
Here’s an example: The marketing team may send out emails using email automation software like MailChimp or Charity Digital Mail. An events team uses Eventbrite to invite people to the upcoming fundraising event. And the finance team uses a spreadsheet to record giving data.
Each individual team might have some great reporting on how well they are performing. But if the data from these systems isn’t married up, nobody will be able to see the entire journey that a donor takes as they interact with the charity. This leaves them unable to ask more creative questions like ’who’s attending our events, and can we tailor our fundraising communications to target those demographics?’ and ’How can we align what we know about our donors and their giving behaviours with our email lists to segment them by preferred frequency and amounts to ask for?’
As well as answering questions, a more joined-up data ecosystem can help charities uncover problems, patterns and correlations that they wouldn’t previously have uncovered or thought to look for, and fix them.
So how can charities solve the lack of a transparent, open view of their data? It comes down to these factors:
Data siloes usually happen organically over time, as an inevitable result of different departments choosing the software that meets their needs. The process of fixing these resulting data siloes becomes costly and time consuming the longer it goes on, and so the sooner you can start working towards a better system the better.
Nurturing a culture of collaboration and communication between your teams can really help. Marketing company HubSpot explained how they managed to do this by creating a ’Culture Code’ which helps embed its values around transparency and openness into everyday operations.
Open fundraising data organisation 360 Giving explains how charities can kick-start a ’data culture’ that gets everyone in their organisation thinking together strategically about the data they use and collect.
If you’re serious about becoming more data-driven as a charity, this means setting up the right infrastructure – think of it as the plumbing that lets that data flow freely.
Whenever you’re choosing new software, whatever it may be, it’s important to seek out those that integrate with your existing tools and processes. A CRM system can be a great way of bringing data together into one place, with the advantage that many of them come with native integrations so it will ’talk’ to your existing tools for marketing, email, finance and more.
A great first step in the journey is to commission or carry out an audit of the data you have, in order to identify what’s useful, what isn’t, and what’s missing.
With this understanding, you can start to build a system for data storage that optimises data flows and access. Poor quality data that is inconsistent, partial or disorganised can begin to be cleaned up so it’s fit for purpose, and the right architecture put in place.
You might solicit the help of charity data specialist such Wood for Trees, who explain on their blog:
"Resulting recommendations to improve data flows and classification (for example) will focus on improving the integrity of the underlying database, giving greater confidence in the accuracy of the data and the insights to be drawn from it."
"With a more robust and accurately managed data warehouse at their fingertips, a charity can reap maximum benefit from analysis tools and dashboards."
This ’data warehouse’ usually takes the form of pooling data into a cloud-based repository or special integration software that’s built for the purpose. A specialised system like this means data sources are easily consolidated, access easily granted to individuals and groups, and data automatically added from different processes in your organisation.
With the right systems in place and the right culture of data sharing you can start to see a clearer picture of how you operate, and even create a more unified experience for anyone interacting with your charity that will drive engagement to new heights.