We’re surrounded by data

Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink

Not that we’re exactly stranded on a doomed ship in the middle of an ocean, but this Ancient Mariner quote does seem relatable. With our expanding digital universe, it can feel like we’re surrounded by data but very few insights.

But many charities struggle to use data to improve their work

‘Some charities are collecting vast amounts of data but struggling to turn it into insights. Others are gleaning insights from data but failing to act on them.’ So said my fellow NPCer Katie Boswell at our recent seminar on the topic.

She’s not wrong, and charities know it: leaders we interviewed for NPC’s State of the Sector research said they feel that the ability to use data to improve is a current challenge for the sector.

They’re right to be concerned. When charities collect data it takes some level of effort. This is wasted if this data isn’t harnessed. Instead it must be turned into information, then into knowledge, then wisdom, then into the holy grail of informed decisions. But how can charities get there?

One of the barriers is collecting too much data to start with: ‘Charities often forget that they do not need to collect data on everything they do,’ Katie explained. ‘There is a vast amount of existing evidence on the effectiveness of interventions, which can save charities the time and resources of testing whether their approach works.’

There are some examples of charities using data to make better decisions

Richard Piper, former Director of Impact Leadership at Mencap, who spoke at our seminar, said: ‘A charity can’t solve all its problems with data. There is a need to use evidence and data in the right way and leadership plays an important role in doing this to make strategic decisions.’

To get charities to wisdom and therefore to informed action, the whole organisation needs to be on board. So good leadership is needed to build a culture that sees data as a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

‘At Place2Be we’ve always been very committed to measuring impact, and we’re now moving towards a culture where all staff can see the value and find it useful, not just as something they have to do to,’ said Sarah Golden, Head of Evaluation at Place2Be, who also spoke at the event. ‘Trying to get people to be curious about the data and how it affects them can be a challenge. However, it is important to have a healthy debate to ensure buy-in from staff.’ 

From their data, Place2Be found that a small number of children were not benefiting from their one-to-one counselling service. So field workers were asked to collect additional contextual information to determine the reasons for this change. They found that there were a range of external factors such as family life and bereavement that could account for the deterioration in behaviour, and the staff adapted their services accordingly.

Place2Be now proactively reviews and records all these cases and works to identify other sources of support within the school or external agencies for these children. Cross-organisational buy-in was instrumental to making these improvements.

For Mencap, too, having staff feel part of the mission and responsible for the impact was crucial to getting their buy-in for the charity’s strategy. When it developed its measurement framework, people across the organisation and service users were consulted throughout the development of the impact framework.

If you’re struggling, our practical guide can help

As the Economist recently proclaimed ‘The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.’ But like oil, data is not valuable in itself, but for what it can do. Both of these charities clearly recognise the value of data when it is used. There are more examples like this, as well as a step-by-step guide to how charities can use their data to get to wisdom and informed decisions, in our new publication Data with destiny. Download it for free and get started.

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