Tania Cohen: What more can be done with data?

By Tania Cohen, Chief Executive of 360 Giving
on 4 July 2022
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For 20 years NPC has been helping philanthropists and charities to maximise social impact in the lives of the people they serve. To mark our 20th birthday, we’ve been talking to leading figures and people doing things differently to ask: Where next for social impact? In this essay, Tania Cohen asks: What more can be done with data?

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We saw a surge of interest and engagement with data during the pandemic – in civil society and almost all other sectors. The need for quick responses amidst rapidly changing circumstances demanded information to be readily available to inform decisions, and the pressure on resources put an acute focus on the importance of making the right ones.

This was definitely apparent in our corner of civil society. 360Giving has seen almost double the number of funders publishing their data since the pandemic began, and a huge increase in the number of people accessing and using grants data to inform their decision making.

For individual organisations, and the sector as a whole, the pandemic exposed the weaknesses in data available and in the overall data infrastructure. As we consider how we “Rethink, Rebuild” and plan for the long term future, data culture, planning, and investment are essential to organisational and sector strength, resilience, and effectiveness.

 

Where we are

The challenges of social sector data are well documented. Most recently, the excellent Law Family Commission on Civil Society report, Better Data, Bigger Impact, produced by Pro-Bono Economics, highlights the critical gaps in data and how we can address them collectively. The scale of the issues are huge.

 

Seeds of hope

Despite the scale of the challenge, there are reasons to be optimistic about opportunities from data. There hasn’t been a sudden drop-off in interest in data now that the immediate pandemic crisis has passed. As many organisations move to the “rethink rebuild” phase, an appetite for more and better data and its use is part of their thinking. While it is always difficult to measure the impact of good data in itself, people are now aware of the impact of under-investment and not having the data when it was needed.

The seeds of hope for a better data future are less about the technology and the data itself, but more about the shift we have seen in the culture and expectations of using and sharing data as part of organisational and sector impact.

How we build on this, individually and collectively, will shape our data future.

 

Opportunities for the future of data

The pandemic emphasised the importance of having good quality and timely data to inform decision-making, and the crucial role of civil society across the UK.

We need a collective effort to put in place the infrastructure for the future to understand and value the social sector. In principle, this means more and better-quality data to inform strategy, policy and practice to maximise the impact for communities and make the best use of funds.

Here’s how we can make the most of these opportunities for a data future:

1. Data as an asset

Treat your data as an asset not an overhead. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

Treat your data as an asset not an overhead. Focus on deriving value from data – just as you might manage assets like investments, equipment and buildings – rather than only seeing it as a cost centre and a potential compliance risk.

The pandemic accelerated the sector’s digital and data transformation. Many organisations have significantly shifted how they work, embracing virtual working and digital delivery, and recognising that data plays a much more important role in those processes, providing valuable insights about themselves and their work. The challenge will be how to expose these insights and release the value they contain.

An important step in valuing this asset is to develop a data strategy and associated plans that centre the value and impact of data to the organisation, rather than just addressing compliance questions. Data needs to be valued internally as a way of learning, and not just for reporting to regulators and funders.

Data can be a huge force for good – helping us to achieve our impact. If used incorrectly, however, data can also do harm. Data shouldn’t be seen as neutral fields and values to be measured and investigated without context. Often our data is about people and that shouldn’t get lost in the data points. Data strategies and plans will need to consider responsibility and ethics – as any good asset and investment strategy would.

Recognising and valuing data as an asset is the right place to start, so organisations must invest in managing and maximising its impact.

2. Data literacy

Data literacy should be a core competency for all managers. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

Instead of seeing data solely as something that data scientists and analysts “do”, view it instead as a core competency for all managers. The technology and tools have advanced significantly to make data use more accessible to all, but our expectations haven’t kept pace. Data is still seen as specialist discipline. But to maximise opportunities for the future, data needs to be seen as a core generalist skill, like literacy and numeracy. Data literacy is the ability to read, understand, question, interpret and use data to inform decisions. This is vital to performance in most management roles.

Specialists will still have a role to play, particularly in architecture, design and infrastructure, but the opportunity for the future is for data literacy to be a mainstream expectation. Data literate teams can think laterally about how to use insights to solve problems and inform decision-making. Data will be part of the day-to-day work. Yes, there may still be a need for analysts to undertake specialist research or more significant cross-cutting data work, but basic data literacy needs to be built across the organisation so that data can be embedded into work.

Just because organisations have a communications team, it doesn’t mean that no-one else writes or speaks! Similarly, just because organisations have an accountant, it doesn’t mean that no-one else needs to know anything about finances or be able to read a budget. Yet it is not uncommon for data and analysis to be seen as a dedicated role rather than a core competency that is essential for the efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation.

To derive value from data as an asset, building data literacy across and between organisations isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it is essential.

3. Collective data and insights

To really unleash the power of data, it’s not enough to keep it at the individual organisational level. Data needs to be combined, used for collaborations, and used to inform sector policy. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

To really unleash the power of this data, it won’t just be on an individual organisational level, but how it is combined and used for collaborations and to inform sector policy.

The technology that makes data sharing possible is pretty mature, so even small organisations like 360Giving can build data infrastructure – but it needs a sector wide approach. We have already seen the impact on grantmaking with 360Giving – but we need this in other areas too. We also need a continued commitment from regulators and the government to make their own data available, and to take the usefulness of it seriously.

The Better Data, Bigger Impact report mentioned earlier makes a number of recommendations for improvements to the sector data as a whole. But there’s a role for each of us to play here. In our sector we have a duty and a responsibility to share data and insights. It furthers our missions. So, at the outset of any collaboration, consider how you can do this to maximise impact.

 

Conclusions

As we begin to rebuild the sector, leaders should take what’s been learnt about data needs and opportunities and be bold in their ambitions for data. Data needs to be valued as an asset, data literacy recognised as a core competency, and sharing insights and learning seen as a responsibility.

By using data and insights well as a sector, we can achieve a lasting transformation for the benefit of the communities and causes that we serve.

 

What should NPC be doing? 

As we begin to rebuild the sector, leaders (including NPC) should take what’s been learnt about data needs and opportunities and be bold in their ambitions for data. Data needs to be valued as an asset, data literacy recognised as a core competency, and sharing insights and learning seen as a responsibility.

 

We hope you find these essays and interviews engaging and thought provoking. We’d love to hear what you think the future holds, and what you believe NPC should be focusing on. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #20yearsofNPC or through our events. As a charity ourselves we rely on the generosity of those who value our work to help us to continue to produce research and guidance to support the sector in maximising social impact. Visit the 20 years of NPC page to find out more. 

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