Data is the hidden horsepower sitting within every organization. But it takes a whole-of-organization effort to truly become more data-driven and data empowered—an effort that includes leaders and individual contributors from across the organization, representing both the business and the technical side. We like to call this a Data Center of Excellence.

Related Reading: The Pursuit of Data Excellence

In a non-profit or mission-driven environment where resources are limited, it’s easy to question whether the creation of Data Center of Excellence is worth the energy and investment. The short answer is yes! After all, a nonprofit’s ability to properly tell its story of impact and influence is perhaps no more powerful than in this space.

The great news is, you can begin your data journey at any time and in any way. The barrier to a whole-of-organization approach to data has never been lower. At SQA Group, we like to talk about six pillars that make up a data center of excellence:

A Strategic Approach

A solid data strategy is a great place to start, as it’s critical in ensuring your organization advances data in alignment with their business objectives, rather than reactively or haphazardly. According to Salesforce’s 2021 Nonprofit Trends Report, 76% of non-profits said they still need to develop a data strategy for their organization.

In the non-profit sector, a data strategy will aim to support operational objectives aligned with your mission instead of raw revenue growth, like it might in the for-profit sector. This makes strategy all the more important – we all know how to track trends from a profit-and-loss statement, but how can data tell a story of how faithful you are to your mission? More on that when we discuss measurement.

Governance — Set Your Tone

A proper approach to data governance will keep a strategy on track. However, it will also set the tone for how your organization handles data in a general sense – not just as it pertains to particular strategic initiatives. While tech giants and other large for-profit enterprises are starting to recognize the necessity of ethics in data and artificial intelligence, non-profits have been leaders on this front for years.

I think the reasons for this are threefold. First, while all non-profits serve a higher purpose, many are focused on helping people. And with that mindset comes a heightened sensitivity to the ethical implications of your organization’s behaviors around data, and the impact it can have on real humans. Secondly, non-profits have also been leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion. I don’t think the contemporaneous emergence of non-profits as early adopters on these two fronts is any coincidence. When done wrong, analytics and AI can lead to severe inequity in practice. This shouldn’t stop non-profits from proceeding with data and AI initiatives that can really help people, or their mission. It just means the subject needs to be approached with care and concern for ethical implications – and good governance will do just that. Finally, non-profits appeal to different types of constituents, such as donors or volunteers, where trust is paramount. I’ll talk about that when we get to stewardship.

Measure for Impact

To state the obvious: non-profits measure differently. If you’re a non-profit, your mission statement goes beyond nice words on a website or nailed to the wall of your corporate office. It is the purpose of your very existence. You live and breathe it, and your supporters expect you to live and breathe it as well. Increasingly, supporters are looking for quantification – 72% of non-profits agreed or strongly agreed that donors expect remote access to key impact performance metrics.

But just how are you measuring impact, and does it truly dot-line back to your mission? Moreover, it is no small understatement to say that we are in a different world compared to three years ago. How does that change how you measure? If visibility in the community is important to achieving your goals, the steps you took to accomplish that in 2020 and 2021 – and the ways you’d measure success – are going to be much different than pre-COVID years. And it will be different still going forward.

Like the others, Measurement exists as a pillar in the DCoE because it is not a one-time initiative. Metrics evolve. The structure of a profit & loss statement might not change much, but the ways to measure the things most important to a non-profit – impact, donor outreach, and equity, to name a few – require constant attention as the world changes.

Adoption – Maximize Your Tools

When we talk about “Adoption & Tools”, it’s a two-parter – getting the most out of the tools you have, and implementing new ones if necessary. For non-profits, that first part is uniquely critical.

According to a study by IBM, the top two barriers towards becoming more data-driven for non-profits were budget and technology. Adoption sits at the intersection of these two factors. The numbers for both for-profits and non-profits tell an alarming story: 30% of software goes completely unused, and another 8% of applications are used less than once per month. Imagine the long-term impacts of being able to reinvest 38% of your annual software investment.

When we focus on adoption, we ask the question, “what it would look like if you were putting every piece of your software to use?” Are there licenses going unused, but still being paid for? Are you paying for a more premium version of a CRM tool but not using all of its features? Do you have redundant systems, and can they be merged to save costs? It’s important for non-profits to answer these questions before deciding whether or not to purchase new tools.

Stewardship = Trust

I mentioned above that for non-profits, stewardship equals trust. With respect to donor data, trust can be breached in two ways – when personal information is not considered sacred, and when inaccurate information leads to embarrassing missteps.

As a non-profit, supporters trust you. While tech giants make us sign off on the fine print letting us know our information is going to be freely bought and sold, no such agreement typically exists when a relationship forms between a non-profit and a donor or volunteer. It means you have to handle your supporters’ data with a higher level of care.

On a more personal level, data inaccuracies can chill a relationship. In the non-profit world, a personal touch can mean the difference between an enthusiastic donor and one who is disengaged. A non-profit development director recently told me about a system they were using that lacked the ability to note certain donor preferences. In one case, a donor wanted to receive infrequent communication – ideally no more than once per year, when it was time to give. While this was placed in a notes field somewhere, it was hard to find – and after a few too many reach-outs, it broke down the trust between the organization and the supporter, who soon after stopped donating. Don’t let bad data break down an otherwise supportive relationship. Stewardship builds practices that help ensure the accuracy of data, so you’re always calling your donors by the correct name, understanding their situation, and being mindful of their contact preferences.

Literacy – Upskill Your People

Recall in the “Adoption” section that budget and technology were the two biggest barriers to becoming more data-driven. According to the same study, “talent” was the third biggest barrier for non-profits. The trend in the for-profit sector is to hire big data teams, with data scientists and AI engineers, to get ahead of the curve. Due to budget constraints, non-profits must seek more of a balance. That’s where data literacy comes in.

The study linked above cites a twofold strategy:

  1. Upskilling. Your current team – and I mean everyone in the organization – needs to be able to read data, interpret it, analyze it at a basic level, and argue with it. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be SQL wizards, but they should be comfortable with Excel, able to read charts and graphs, understand correlation, and identify trends.
  2. Outsourcing. You aren’t going to build a robust in-house analytics team overnight, or in a limited budget environment, even in a year. So start small. Data consultants are a great way to deliver concentrated impact and scale your team according to your needs at any given time.

Putting It All Together

Each of the six pillars – Strategy, Governance, Measurement, Adoption, Stewardship, and Literacy – has special meaning in the non-profit world. While we always recommend starting with strategy, a non-profit may want to dive right in if it will help build enthusiasm and momentum towards instilling a data-driven culture. You might want to take a fresh look at what you’re measuring, or evaluate the adoption of your software tools, or conduct some base-level literacy training. Each pillar is an area of focus that provides value in different ways. Taken together, the Data Center of Excellence will help drive any organization – for- or non-profit – towards greater levels of data maturity.

Are you a non-profit looking to accelerate how your organization uses data? Click here to learn more about how our Data Center of Excellence packages and see how they can help put data into action for you.