“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Variations on that aphorism exist throughout both classic and modern art, music, and literature. Everyone from Kierkegaard to Ozzy Osbourne puts their own particular spin on it. But what does it mean in the context of this blog? We’re talking about data — hard numbers. The problem with those numbers is that we’re often tempted to cut corners with them. Today, I want to reiterate the importance of data quality for social sector organizations.
Adopting a Data Culture
How can cash-strapped nonprofits leverage Big Data to improve their processes, measure impact, or grow their donor base? Julie Leary sums up the answer on Whole Whale’s blog (another great resource for nonprofits): nonprofits need to adopt a data culture.
Data culture? That sounds like something for big corporations with limitless resources! Not for my team!
If you’re nodding along with that response, you’re not alone. Nonprofits and other groups dedicated to social causes want a culture that empowers staff, partners, and the people they serve. You don’t want something that consumes even more of your (already stretched) resources. You especially don’t want something that’s only relevant to some data experts working in the office… right?
But data shouldn’t be for the select few! Correctly implemented, data culture starts with leadership and will be relevant to every member of your team, your partners, and the community you serve. Adopting a data culture ensures everyone focuses on gathering and applying the right data at the right time, to the right issue. And that’s where data quality can make or break your efforts.
What Poor Data Quality Can Do
But as long as you’re working to help people, one wrong number here or there can’t matter that much, can it?
Oh yes, it can. Watch this short video by Tim Elliott (newsletter subscribers may recognize it — I highlighted it a few months back). He explains how a single small error in a property value assessment left a county scrambling to cover an $8 million shortfall.
While the accuracy of any one number in the mountains of data you collect may seem insignificant, the interconnected nature of social sector, government, and nonprofit organizations means that data quality matters — a lot. A single bad value can affect multiple systems and, ultimately, have massive consequences.
Put your own organization in the shoes of officials in Valparaiso, Indiana. How would your efforts be impacted if one bad value set your budget back $8 million? How would the people you serve be affected?
Safeguarding Data Quality
Nonprofit team leaders play a critical role in adopting a data culture to ensure data quality standards are upheld at all levels. Staff at all levels must collect data, measure outcomes, initiate actions based on that data, and build on existing knowledge as time goes on. For this, a base level of data competency across the organization is an absolute must. (Creating a Data-Driven Culture is a free download that offers more specifics for leaders.)
There is a temptation to limit access to technology or data. Maybe numbers will go against instincts, trump experience, or challenge the direction the organization is taking. But the impact of adopting a data culture can be the difference between success and costly errors or misdirection. (Data for Student Success has developed a process for Leadership in Building a Culture of Quality Data that can serve as an excellent template for nonprofits.)
Not a leader? You can still help safeguard data quality by:
- Auditing and cleaning your data
- Collecting data at the appropriate level
- Creating data biographies to ensure your data is trustworthy
- Beware of digital discrimination and data deserts
- Recognize the dangers of unknown algorithms and Big Data complexity
Need Help Adopting a Data Culture?
While using data to gain accurate, timely insights for decision-making or impact measurement can benefit your entire team, adopting a data culture is an intimidating prospect — especially for nonprofits wary of disrupting the services they provide to vulnerable groups, or interrupting the flow of funding that makes their efforts possible.
If you’d like help ensuring data quality and usability for your team, the experts at Datassist are here to help. We can provide step-by-step guidance, answer questions, or take the lead in your organization’s data culture — whatever you need, we’re here to support you. Get in touch with us now to discuss your organization’s needs.