Data Best Practices for Nonprofit Leaders

October 21, 2015 Ola Topczewska

Since joining Civis Analytics this year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with different organizations through our nonprofit practice area. Civis’s commitment to doing work that has a positive social impact””including our significant involvement with nonprofits like the Gates Foundation, Enroll America, and the American Red Cross””was one of the reasons I chose to work here. We often find that many nonprofits face similar challenges as they begin to incorporate data into their strategic decision-making. In the spirit of helping nonprofits do more with the data they already have, I’ve gathered some key pieces of advice for small organizations to keep in mind as they gather and work with data.

1. Dispel the myths: Incorporate data into your workflow

Moving from a data-lite organization to using data to inform all of your strategic decisions can seem intimidating. But the truth is, you don’t need to have “Big Data”””massive datasets with thousands of variables””to draw quantitative, actionable insights. You probably already have data on your work that can be utilized more effectively. And, diving into the world of quantitative analysis doesn’t mean your industry experience will be irrelevant; data science is just one tool that can make you a more effective and efficient organization.

2. Consider storing your data in the cloud

Using cloud data storage can be a preferable solution to managing an in-house server for many organizations, especially smaller nonprofits. Cloud storage means you can access data on the go and you are not reliant on your own IT team to keep your servers functioning. We recommend using Amazon Web Services for organizations that are interested in transitioning to cloud storage. AWS only charges you for the data storage you actually use, which is great for small teams operating on a budget. The Civis platform is a great way for nonprofit organizations to get the benefits of cloud storage with very little set up. Civis has combined the best tools available through AWS””including the Redshift fast analytics database and more than 20 AWS products””to build a system that is reliable, private, fast, and secure. Find out more about how we use AWS here.

3. Store data securely

When accessing data online and hosting data remotely, especially when you are working with personally identifiable information, data security is of the utmost importance. A nonprofit’s reputation can be severely damaged by a security breach””which can affect people’s donation and volunteering decisions for years. Multi-factor authentication, encryption in-transit and at-rest, and requiring complex passwords that are changed regularly can help make a computing environment more secure. When working with protected information, you will need to meet additional legal guidelines for data usage.

4. Follow best practices in data creation and maintenance

When working with any sort of data, it’s important to follow standard conventions, like:

  • Collecting data at the level that is useful to you. Generally, it is better to collect data at a more granular level””e.g., at the individual level””and then aggregate it to the district or program you’re interested in, but this will depend on your organization and capabilities. Think about the ways the information will ultimately be aggregated, reported, and acted upon when setting up your data storage systems.

  • Create and update documentation. It’s very important to keep a record of what each variable in your data represents, the source of that data, and any relevant information about that variable that might be relevant for other users.

  • Rather than trying to measure everything at once, identify a handful of clear, meaningful metrics that make sense for your organization and keep your eye closely trained on those. You may find seasonal trends over time that you can’t observe in data from one point in time. Many of our clients find that setting up automated reporting of these key metrics (such as a scheduled email every week) can be very useful.

  • Have a consistent way of identifying observations””for example, distinct people””using a primary key, like a person id. Think about the ways your data will be used and make sure that your id variables can be used to match tables to each other.

  • Ensure that data is consistent within your variables to save time cleaning data down the line. For example, don’t have a name field which sometimes has first and last names and other times has last names only. Standardized formatting is especially important when working with addresses, phone numbers, and emails. Revising your data collection forms to ensure input fields are standardized is a time investment upfront that pays off later.

5. Share analysis throughout your organization

The mark of a truly data-driven operation is that people at all levels of the organization are using data to inform their everyday decisions. This is only possible if analysis is available to everyone, from the Executive Director to your volunteers or donors. Try to disseminate information in a way that is easy to understand and, more importantly, easy to act on””specific recommendations and findings that are relevant to the decisions that everyone is making in their day-to-day jobs. This has two benefits: first, aligning everyone in the organization around effective strategies, and second, encouraging more responsible data collection throughout the organization, as people see the value and payoff to having clean and accurate data.

To find out more about how Civis can help your organization better use data at any step of the process, contact us.

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