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What does it take for charities to harness the power of data?

At the recent parliamentary launch of palliative care charity Together for Short Lives’ #forthe49000 campaign, I was reminded of one of our favourite sayings at NPC: ‘No numbers without stories, no stories without numbers’. We use this when we talk about charities understanding and communicating their impact, because data includes both numbers and stories and is most powerful when the two are drawn out together.

Numbers, like ‘49,000 children with life-limiting conditions’—known as quantitative data—can provide a clear message about what is happening for large groups of people, and highlight links between services and outcomes. Stories—known as qualitative data—can capture the complexity of social change and provide in-depth understanding of peoples’ experiences. Like the story we heard from parent Rachel, who gave a speech about caring for her son Frank after he was diagnosed with a rare disease at the age of four.

As charities like Together for Short Lives look to the future, collecting both numbers and stories about how services are supporting beneficiaries will be crucial to improving their work. So, what does it take to harness the power of this data?

Collecting the data that matters

When charities ask me what data they ought to collect, my first question is always: what are you trying to achieve? Most of the time, charities collect data either to understand their impact or to understand the context in which they work.

NPC’s four pillar approach guides charities through deciding what data to collect in order to understand their impact. We recommend that charities start by mapping their theory of change—what they plan to achieve and their path to getting there—then prioritise what to measure and select appropriate data sources and tools. Sometimes this  actually means collecting less impact data, but focusing on the data that matters.

The same message applies when looking at data to understand a charity’s context: prioritise data that matters. For children’s palliative care, for example, this could include data about the characteristics and needs of children with life-limiting conditions and their families, what is important to them, and how well services are currently supporting them.

Aligning data systems to see the bigger picture about what works

Unfortunately, current data does not always provide a clear picture about the things that matter to charities’ users. Earlier this year, for example, a report from the Council for Disabled Children and True Colours Trust found that national data about disabled children was riddled with gaps and anomalies. Data is collected on children separately by different agencies using different systems, making it difficult to understand children’s needs and commission effective services.

Other sectors also find that data is fragmented and inconsistent, and charities struggle to access government data. NPC recently called for the government to establish a Health Data Lab that would unlock analysis of administrative health data for groups of people receiving services from charities. This model has already gained traction in criminal justice, and could be applied to other areas, such as education and employment.

Moving from data to insight

Data alone is not enough: it needs to be translated into actionable insights. So how can charities move from data to wisdom? We think there are 3 key stages to this.

  1. Collate data in a structured and systematic way. This could range from having a well-organised internal CRM system through to an ambitious database like CHAIN, which brings together information from a range of organisations working with rough sleepers in London.
  2. Analyse and make sense of the data collected. A survey of 200 charities carried out by the Data Evolution project found that fewer than half of respondents thought they had the right skills to analyse data in useful and meaningful ways. NPC has argued the charity sector needs to attract and develop more analytical skills to help close this gap.
  3. Use data to inform strategic decisions or improve services. This requires a culture focused on learning and the leadership to act on what the data is saying—however difficult or disruptive that may be.

Data can provide rich insights but harnessing it requires the right systems, skills, culture and leadership. The ultimate prize—better services for people like Rachel and Frank—is one that is worth fighting for.

There’s still time to sign up for our seminar on how to use your impact data: 27 June, £50. Find out more here.


This piece was originally written for the Together for Short Lives blog.

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