Is your charity desperately drowning in data?

Sally Dyson, Head of Digital Participation, SCVO, argues that charities’ approach to data collection and storage is holding them back from truly making waves with their data.

Guest Writer | 25th Jun 18

Sally Dyson is Head of Digital Participation, SCVO. After attenting the launch of a research paper ‘Scotland’s Public Sector Spending Pressure’, she was struck by the phrase ‘Doing things differently and doing different things.’ She decided to take it as the basis for a series of articles from the perspective of SCVO’s digital leaders’ programme, exploring the value of giving time and space to think differently.


Data (noun):

Both these dictionary definitions confirm my suspicion that data collected, in this instance by charities, should be learned from and used in decision making processes. To me, this means having a fundamental understanding of why each piece, or type, of data is collected, its value and its purpose – enabling organisations to be ‘data driven’. I wonder how many charities can, hand on heart, say that they come close to that aim?

SCVO’s digital leadership programme has given me a wonderful opportunity to gain insight into the data lives of dozens of organisations. All of them are on a data collection, analysis and usage spectrum with the majority wanting to free up capacity to focus on sweating this particular asset more effectively.

Charity data is often ‘funder led’ and there is often no real clarity on its purpose. As a result charities are inconsistent with collecting, recording, storing and reporting on it. They simply collect as much data as possible in the hope that, one day, it might be requested.

Throw yourself a data ‘life ring’

So, what to do? We’re all time poor. It’s time for a ‘less is more’ approach, where we spend the same amount of time on the data but in different ratios.

Spend a good amount of time planning what data the organisation really needs. I’d also advocate thinking about the ‘rainy day’ data you are hoarding, and then analysing why you shouldn’t be collecting it – leave no room for ‘what if’ scenarios. Do whatever you need to do to really imprint on your brain why it’s not going to be collected.

Explore different methods of capturing and storing the data, because those mechanisms work, not because everyone likes collecting and storing information on brightly coloured post it notes (of course we are talking about GDPR compliant post-its).

Then do the process stuff. Roll this out in a clear plan – filter in when you can start collecting this data for different projects and scenarios. Collect the data and congratulate yourself on how much easier it is.

Look around to find what other good quality data is being collected by others which you could use to supplement your own.  Could public data sets on health, crime and other outcomes help tell a story, demonstrate impact or help you target resources?

Folow the steps below- then finally you can enjoy spending time analysing and using the data.


How to save yourself from drowning in data:

  1. Be more assertive and ruthless around what the needs to be collected. It will be both numbers and stories. Can any of this be automated?
  2. Have a compelling case for why you only need to collect the data you’re collecting – use this to robustly push back to funders.
  3. Have clear, simple, robust mechanisms for collecting and storing data. Collect it consistently as as near to real time as possible.
  4. Devolve responsibility for collecting and analysing data down as far as possible – but have a single point of understanding the big picture.
  5. Really understand when and how the information will be used – aim for using all data in at least three different circumstance, e.g.:
  • As evidence to funders.
  • In promotion and publicity in print and on social media.
  • In a new fundraising pitch.
  • To tell stories to volunteers demonstrating their value.
  • To celebrate with trustees the impact of your work.
  • Shaping services.
  • Shared for others to make use of.


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