October/November 2013: Charity Data Review

Charity data

There are plenty of options for charities to start using data in more imaginative ways, particularly to understand their results, but we are not seeing the response from charities, argues Tracey Gyateng

Everyone’s talking about data: open data, big data, private data — it’s the latest buzzword to sweep through the sector. As a self-confessed data geek I am delighted by this trend. And there’s good cause for it too, because by engaging with data in the right way, charities can better understand the issues they work on, operate more effectively, and improve their understanding of the difference they make. The bad news, however, is that most charities are currently not taking advantage of the opportunities it presents.

There are numerous examples of how charities can use data, but fundraising is an area organisations are always keen to hear about. In the current economic
climate, budgets are being squeezed, with NCVO and CAF reporting that the
charitable sector received the lowest level of donations in 2011/12 since the survey first began in 2004/05.

Inevitably, fundraisers have come under increasing pressure, with many exploring ways to better connect and understand current donors whilst looking towards new methods of reaching donors by expanding their digital activities.

Earlier this year, NPC’s Money for Good UK report examined who, why, and how people donate. In the next stage of the project charities will have the opportunity to apply our donor segmentation tool to their own fundraising data and use it to fine tune their approaches.

Barnsley Hospice provides another example of how data can be used to improve fundraising. By linking the postcodes from their donor database to the local council’s dataset showing the socio-economic profile of neighbourhoods, they are able to tailor their fundraising strategy for each area, for example, by marketing small pledges for lower income areas and corporate giving where businesses are located.

Despite these good examples, the sector as a whole still has a lot of work to do to fully engage with the data agenda. There are plenty of options for charities to start using data in more imaginative ways, particularly to understand their results, but we’re just not seeing the response from charities.

For example, charities working with offenders can now use the Ministry of Justice’s Justice Data Lab to find out whether or not the clients they work with go on to re-offend. However, uptake of the service has been relatively slow, though we are hoping that this will pick up as the tool becomes more established.

NPC recently published The Power of Data: Is the charity sector ready to plug in? which examined the demand and supply-side barriers to charities engaging with the data agenda. On the supply-side, more progress needs to be made around making data available, particularly in a way that is useful and accessible to charities — something our Data Labs project aims to by increasing the supply of government held data and analysis for impact measurement, and to support charities to use the data.

The picture on the demand side is more complex, and the key barriers outlined in The power of data are:

Awareness: charities and funders need to be aware of the potential of data sets that are relevant to their work and publically available (or that could be requested), and how to access these.

Capability: Most charities don’t have specialised analysts or research departments, so making the most of data can be difficult as at the minimum it requires someone with an aptitude for, and interest in, analysis.

Capacity: Data analysis is difficult and requires resource, including time and technology. Frontline charities rarely have the money for this, or the funding to bring it in externally.

Further to this, there is also the concern that many charities are nervous of the disruption results could bring; that is, what would happen if they suddenly found out that they weren’t achieving what they thought they were. This fear of failure is a major barrier and will only change if the attitudes of charities, funders and commissioners are shifted and enlightened.

Data, and what can be done with data, is a rapidly progressing field, and as things stand, the charity sector risks being left behind by not engaging with the opportunities it brings and by not ensuring that its interests and requirements are represented by initiatives to open it up.

Tracey Gyateng is data labs manager at NPC. Data will be one of the topics covered at NPC and CFG’s Impact Leadership Conference 2014, supported by Charity Times. For more information visit: http://www.thinknpc.org/events/

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