You may feel like you are swimming in data. Email marketing data, website analytics data, program and service data, donor data, financial data, and the list goes on and on. All of this data is captured and stored in nonprofit database software, but what does it mean, how do you use it, and how can you maximize its potential. Clear, concise and consistent data is important to the operational health of your organization, so in this post, we will review five things you can do to start getting more from your data.
How can you use data?
Data offers the opportunity to do some neat things.
- Objectively assess organizational performance
- Empirically validate your strategic direction (remove sayings like “I think” or “I feel” from decision making)
- Inform how to improve organizational performance
- Yield insights that otherwise would remain unknown
- Consistently learn in real time
But not all data is particularly useful. The value of data is dependent on what you put into it and how your organization utilizes it.
While there are a variety of strategies you can use to maximize the value of your data, you can take immediate short-term action to “get the most” from your data by implementing these five simple tips.
1. Set goals
Data is only helpful to your organization if it is relevant. Data is relevant when it is applied. Organizational goals can be used to make data relevant. Goals are a benchmark for your performance. Goals inform the measures, metrics, and data needed to compare real performance with expected results. Since goals inform the data required to inform goal achievement, they become a perfect measuring stick for the data you collect. Data becomes actionable and relevant when compared directly to goals.
Keep it simple to start. List 3-5 goals and determine the data that is required to measure performance toward those goals. Collect data and measure against those goals for a set period of time. Then compare reported data against your defined goals. Keep your focus on those goals and those data sets so the process is manageable. Expand as you become confident in the process.
2. Run consistent reports
Data cannot produce actionable or relevant insights by itself because it is just a set of discrete points. However, when aggregated into reports, consistent data can be transformed into useful information.
Consistency is one of the most important components of good reporting in database software for nonprofits. Consistent reports that are relevant to the goals you set act as dashboards of progress.
Consistent reports also keep you focused on the process of collecting, analyzing, and acting on data that is applied to your goals. Consistent reports will help your organization focus on the uses and application of data instead of just “data collection.”
Take each of your goals and identify the single report you need to measure performance toward that goal. Based on the timeline for your goal, schedule times on a consistent schedule to run the report. Draft or develop the report so it can be accessed easily in your database software (without having to recreate it every time). Stick to your schedule for the duration of your goal timeline.
3. Devote time to data
Data’s utility is derived from an application. Applying data requires effort. As a result, you must devote time to data and the database software that stores your data. Devote time to the following nonprofit data management practices.
Managing data quality – Ensure data quality both at the point of data entry (end users) as well as on a consistent basis with data quality checks and quality controls (administrators).
Reporting – Data needs to be aggregated in reports. As a result, it is critical that you spend time developing, writing, and creating meaningful reports (analysis will start with clear reporting).
Analysis – Take time to analyze report conclusions. This may require statistical analysis, mathematical analysis, or formatting to fully evaluate a set of data.
Defining action items – After data has been analyzed, develop a list of next steps or action items.
Blueprint your week and define each hour of your week based on the time you will spend on various activities. Within that available time, devote a certain segment specifically to data analysis, review, and thought. Stick to your data management plan and invest the scheduled time in data-related activities (e.g. data quality, reporting, analysis, and defining next actions).
4. Be curious
“Getting the most” from data also requires a high level of curiosity. Google defines curiosity as a strong desire to know or learn something. With respect to data, curiosity is manifested in two questions, “what is this data telling me” and “why.” Probe, dig, and dive deep into the real drivers behind your data and what it is telling you; and more importantly, use that data to support the answers to these two questions. In addition, never make assumptions when analyzing data unless the answer is supported by evidence that reinforces your assumptions. Be curious at every level of your data management practices.
When analyzing data, inject these two questions into your process: “what is the data telling me” and “why.” Consciously stay away from assumptions by asking and then answering these questions. Keep digging until you develop a fully formed explanation. Curiosity is also developed through confidence. Confidence with data comes with experience. As a result, you may consider a targeted class on Excel or report specific training for the database software you use (if you use a specific software). That way you have the tools to answer these questions yourself.
5. Implement and take action
The last and most important component of “getting the most” from your data is the implementation of identified next actions.
Databases, forms, spreadsheets, and notepads full of data are useless unless they are used to “act.” Data informs and data empowers, but data cannot change the world, save a life, coordinate volunteers, raise more funds for the mission, or lead staff. Data is a tool and any tool needs an operator to take action.
Implementation of next actions is informed by your application of data to a real-life situation. If you aren’t using data to take action, then the data you are managing isn’t achieving its most valuable state.
Data is valuable if it is used to act. Taking action and implementing changes, improvements, or learning is the ultimate positive outcome of nonprofit data management.
After each review of data, list at least one action per insight. Never leave the table after analyzing a set of data without identifying “what to do next.” An action could be an alteration to a strategy, running another report and conducting more analysis, correcting a data set that is inaccurate or inconsistent, or prompting a meeting with others to review the data further.
Using database software for nonprofits to get more from data.
Database software that captures and stores data can help you be smarter, better informed, and deliver more impact. But the value of data isn’t derived in and of itself (i.e. collection and storage of data). Data becomes valuable with conscious, intentional, and strategic efforts by your organization. Start transforming data into valuable insight by setting goals, running consistent reports, devoting time to data, being curious, and taking action.