Information: The Better Half of IT

We sometimes forget that IT stands for Information Technology. As a society, we have become obsessed with the “Technology” half—the tools and devices that infiltrate our lives—and with producing, updating, and controlling these devices. But information is the fuel that drives any technology machine: it is what our devices collect, store, synthesize, and distribute. And every advocate for social good has much to gain by paying attention to the Information half of IT.

We succeed when we provide just the right information to our end users, where they want it, when they need it, in a format that gives them the power to make good decisions.

Most humans absorb information through written or spoken words and images that help them connect and synthesize chunks of information. As a database administrator, my world revolves around helping users make sense of the information they receive, from voice-of-the-customer anecdotes and impressions to polished Key Performance Indicator (KPI) graphs, charts, and dashboards. And that information can almost always be broken down into its underlying data: the literal and figurative bits and bytes that catalog our lives, the work we do, and the world around us.

Why pay attention to data?

Data is valuable!

Why else would phishing, hacking, and cybersecurity be such hot topics right now? Think about the last time you heard someone mention a safety deposit box and compare that to the last conversation you heard about creating, managing, or forgetting login credentials. Our environment is telling us how important our data is by how hard we work to protect it.

Data fuels most activities in a nonprofit.

Raw data—such as customer lists with phone numbers and email addresses—is a valuable resource as-is. Basic data sets allow organizations to take action—such as communicating with members or soliciting donors. Raw data is like the basic sugar molecule that powers metabolism. In a sprint to the finish, you need good energy in the form of clean, complete data, to get you to your goal. Clean data allows you to reach the right audience at the right time with a higher probability of getting their attention and sealing the deal, whether that is a donation, a new student enrollment, or simply getting current parents at your school to sign a permission form.

Data gives us context.

Your organization’s aggregated or synthesized data is more like a complex carbohydrate that provides fuel for sustained activity. Analyzed data—usually in the form of charts and dashboards—provides a way for you to measure your organization’s activity against past output or industry standards: it allows you to determine growth and success, or lack thereof. How often has your organization struggled with answering, “How are we doing?” Looking backwards at historical data helps you answer that question. And looking forwards through data modeling allows you to make predictions about the future.

Data helps us make decisions.

Consider this common situation: you wake up and must decide what to eat today. You probably start ticking through a familiar list of questions that help you make your culinary and nutritional decisions:

  • Do I need coffee? How urgently?
  • Am I hungry now?
  • What food do I have readily available?
  • Will what I eat now affect what I want to eat later today?
  • What sustenance do I need to satisfy my health goals, hunger, or cravings?

You are gathering data, and for a good reason! Collecting and synthesizing data allows you to make informed decisions, which shifts the probability-of-success curve in your favor. You are much more likely to have a good, productive day if you are neither hungry nor groggy. The same theory applies to your organization: informed decisions improve your chance of performing well. They are like a compass that uses historical data as one point and forward-looking data modeling as another point to determine your direction and set your course of action.

How do I care for my data?

But what if you’re not a data geek who gets excited about a robust data set with a couple of lovely pivot charts? That’s okay! But there is someone in your organization who does. There is someone who pays attention to detail and makes the time to correct small errors. Do you have someone who can be found combing through a spreadsheet and enjoying it? Maybe that’s your database administrator, your CFO, or an office support staff person. Find that person, tell them they are amazing, and help them get in touch with their peers. For organizational leaders, deputizing and supporting the right person at your organization will return huge dividends in the form of clean, organized, and well-documented data structures. If you are the data guru, welcome to the club. Just wait until you see what we have in store for you.

Educational institutions, particularly colleges and universities, have long employed institutional researchers (IRs) to collect, analyze, and report on data that informs decision-making and planning for the school. The Association for Institutional Research (AIR) provides resources and connections for those “working at the intersection of people and data.” Independent schools at the secondary level are following suit, with the relatively new Center for Institutional Research in Independent Schools (CIRIS) providing “professional development resources, networking opportunities, and best practice recommendations for both institutional researchers and school leaders interested in building data-informed, mission-driven feedback structures.”

For those organizations too small for a dedicated IR person, simply getting your data guru connected with like-minded peers in the same industry is transformative. Having the support and encouragement to scrub data or write down basic data-related procedures will get your data person on the path to good data management. There are grassroots groups on social media, listservs, and informal peer groups for users of various Blackbaud products. Check out the Blackbaud Community to get started connecting with other data-focused friends.

How do I harness my data?

If you’re still reading, that is a great first step! It means that you are open to the importance of the role data plays in your organization. Next, there are some preliminary steps you—or your data guru—can take:

  • Dedicate time to mapping your data flow. You can start with simple lists:
    • Input – What information/data do we collect and where does it come from?
    • Management – What tool/resource(s) do we use to store and analyze our data?
    • Output – What information/data do we use or provide to others to take actions?
  • Survey members of your organization to ask about their data input, management, and output. This will give you the full picture of how your organization handles data. You might be surprised to learn how many different input/output workflows people are using and how many siloed tools they rely on.
  • Survey members of your organization to ask what information they are missing that could help them perform their job better, faster, more efficiently, or more effectively.

Creating time and space to map your data flow—and supporting the person tasked with the mapping—is an essential step toward harnessing your data. What comes next is like most projects: identify gaps in the workflows that handle your data, strive to close those gaps, measure your progress, and iterate to keep improving.

Understanding what data is most valuable to your organization will help you prioritize which gaps to address first. This usually means identifying key metrics that you have been using—or want to be using—to measure your organization’s success. With those key metrics as a foundation, your mapping will allow you to identify the underlying key data so that you can collect it as completely as possible, store it carefully, and make it accessible to be analyzed.

Data Can Sustain and Support.

A chef chooses ingredients based on their vision for an exquisite meal. Data managers are more often like the weary working parent who arrives home at dinner time, grabs what they can out of the fridge, and throws together a casserole. But when your fridge is stocked with enough quality key ingredients, that casserole becomes a healthy, nourishing, delectable meal. And just like key ingredients in a casserole, your organization’s data—when properly collected, stored, and combined—will sustain and support everyone at your organization in the wonderful, challenging nonprofit work that we all do.