Nonprofit Data Collection: Why Nonprofit Data Managers Hold The Keys

Proper Data Collection for Nonprofits: Why Does it Matter? (2022 Update)

One of the most critical facets of any organization – commercial or nonprofit – is its data.  A nonprofit organization’s data can be an invaluable asset.  Or, without proper care, your data can be relatively worthless.  To take it a step further, the quality of your data and how you use your data can make the difference between effectively delivering your mission and, well, missing the mark.  And if you don’t collect the right data, or if you don’t have enough visibility into the data you do collect to know its quality, then data collection may not even be worth the time it takes to collect.

Still, in the world of nonprofit data collection, organizations have a wealth of tools, strategies, and talent to rely on to ensure high-quality, insightful data, despite the inherent challenges they may face.  The hard work of a nonprofit data management professional may go unnoticed, but your organization still needs a current, clean, complete CRM database system.  Today there are secure cloud-based tools that make that work less onerous, less error-prone, more automated, more intuitive, and less time-consuming – so there is more time for available for other mission-critical priorities.

Data can be like pieces of a puzzle, but will form an incomplete picture if all the pieces don’t’ fit or if there aren’t enough of them.  Effective nonprofit data collection (and data hygiene) practices will ensure that you and your colleagues can put together the full, up-to-date picture every time, and quickly, too.  Below are a few considerations to bear in mind when building or refining your data collection methods and strategies.

Data Collection – Size Doesn’t Matter, but Data Quality Does

Whether your organization has 200 records of two million, your database will always have more value if it’s current, clean, and complete.  But ‘size’ doesn’t just mean the total of your record count.  Size also means the breadth of your data collection sources.

Size itself doesn’t matter, but the volume of data collected – and needing to be qualified – will depend on both the magnitude of your organization and the number of ‘satellite’ or ‘boundary’ applications that you have in place.  Those are the systems outside your main CRM that engage with supporters and collect information about them and their interactions with you.

(A 2022 study by MIP showed that 75% of nonprofits surveyed use four or more different digital tools, implying that organizations are using more disparate systems to collect and manage supporter data than ever before.  https://www.mip.com/resource/2022-nonprofit-research-study/.)

An organization’s data management professionals should look at three data collection dimensions:

  1. What data are being collected by the satellite apps you use? Should that information be integrated into your organization’s main CRM system (to gain more/better insights)?  What’s the best way accomplish that?
  2. What data on your supporters are not being collected but should be (to gain more/better insights)? And what’s the best way to accomplish that?
  3. How can you ensure the quality of the data you are collecting and integrating, so that the data you have and use are as current, clean, and complete as possible?

Whether your organization has dedicated data management professionals or you work on a team with shared responsibilities, you can start planning your approach to analyzing and improving data collection immediately.  Regardless of the size of your team, you can create data collection objectives and then work to achieve those objectives with a combination of the right tools and strategy.

The most important first steps are to understand how and where data are being collected, what types of data are being collected, what data collection issues need to be remedied (including data not being collected that should be, and ensuring data quality), and how to address those issues.

Data That Nonprofits Collect

It’s important to understand what types of data are being collected by nonprofits.

The first thing that may come to mind are financial data.  Every nonprofit, no matter the size, has a general ledger for recording revenue, expenses, and other fiscally-related transactions.  Organizations collect financial data with every recorded transaction, and all that financial data is used to support organizational decision-making, prioritization of initiatives, and budgeting for the next year.  While financial data are vital for organizational operations, they are typically not as complicated or as nuanced supporter-related data.

Conversely, development interactions and organizational outreach efforts typically provide the most potential for broad data collection that will yield insights and drive strategies for supporter engagement and fundraising outcomes.  This often includes information collected and stored in that variety of ‘satellite’ applications – email marketing, event management, online giving, volunteer management, etc.  These platforms are obviously important in and of themselves for supporter engagement and fundraising efforts, but the data collected by them will be far less useful if they remain segregated in those satellite apps, and far more useful if consolidated together in your organization’s main CRM system.

For example, if an email subscriber expresses interest in a certain program or initiative, fundraisers could use that data, if available to them, to target solicitation communication focusing on that area.  Similarly, if a donor makes a gift with a certain programmatic restriction, that information can be used by the email marketing team, if available to them, to send follow-up information on that program area as a component of your organization’s donor relations and stewardship focus.

That said, we can’t stress enough the importance of data quality.  When data are being collected in many different applications, and when you add the need to exchange data between platforms because you recognize the value of consolidated supporter information, you run the risk of problematic data quality if you are not thoughtful about the tools you use for effective data integration.

Challenges In Collecting Nonprofit Data

Nonprofit professionals use data every day to make decisions.  Data-driven organizations are proactive about leveraging data for decision-making, but most organizations use data to inform business decisions whether they realize it or not.

For example, nonprofits use data to make decisions about direct marketing segments.  If the data collected on which those marketing segments are based (let’s say just standard Recency, Frequency, Monetary) are not current or incomplete, the segments may not perform effectively.  Another way to put it is that when data are unreliable, you run the risk of making uninformed or incorrect decisions which could harm your organization and its relationships down the road.

In a recent study conducted by Nonprofit Hub, 90% of nonprofits reported that they actively collect data but a surprising 49% stated that they don’t know how data are being collected.  (Even more surprising was the 13% who said they rarely or never use data collected!)  Not knowing how data are collected, or the source of the data, can lead to quality issues – at its most basic, not knowing the source of your data raises questions surrounding whether the information collected is fresh and how accurate it is.

Perhaps the primary data collection problem in today’s more common ‘best-of-breed’ nonprofit technology ecosystems is that organizations use many platforms and applications, most of which don’t naturally integrate with the main CRM database system or each other.  This can be a major pain point for nonprofit data management professionals when it comes to effectively collecting data.

For instance, different systems likely have data collected for the same donors or supporters.  If all that data collected in separate solutions are not effectively integrated, your main CRM system records will neither be current nor complete.  And if manual data entry or rudimentary tools are used to exchange data, the time it takes and the risk of duplicates and other errors brings about a whole separate set of data remediation issues.

Protecting Your Data

Data collected must also be data protected.  The protection of your organization’s data has become a fundamental component of any nonprofit’s data collection practices and strategies.  Furthermore, this isn’t only about protecting data from malicious external parties.  It’s also about ensuring that data privacy rules are followed, whether they are externally mandated or internally set forth.

Today, in the 2020s, there are a multitude of laws, regulations, and policies revolving around data collection, data security, and data privacy.  How these affect your organization will depend to a great extent on where your organization is located (eg, country, state), where it operates, the type of data being collected (eg, whether the data comprise ‘personally identifiable information’), and how data are actually being collected (eg, from a webform, a gift payment by check, etc.).  The details of the data protection regulations are beyond the scope of this piece, but here are a few data protection and privacy considerations to keep in mind and research further:

  • Do you have safe data storage, whether in the cloud or on-premises?
  • Do you have a data privacy policy? If so, what is it and where/how is it published?
  • How do you manage and protect data collected via your website, including your usage of website cookies, and (how) do you notify website visitors of cookie usage?
  • What ‘opt-in’ factors need to be considered to legally collect data about website users with whom you wish to begin email communication?

Beyond the statutes, there are volumes of information currently available on best practices for protection, security, and privacy when collecting data.  There may also be real costs involved in putting technology in place to ensure that data collected are secure, private, and follow the data protection laws in your locale.  This, combined with an effective data collection strategy and compliant data collection protocols, will mitigate potential data protection risks.

Nonprofit Data Collection:  Data Quality is Key

Your organization is more than likely collecting data.  It’s also more than likely that you are collecting more data than ever before, and from more platforms employed to effectively engage stakeholders, donors, supporters, and prospects.

There are a number of questions you can ask, the answers to which can help point you to a path that will ensure you are collecting the right data and collecting quality data.  Those questions are:

  • What data are we collecting?
  • Which platforms are collecting our data
  • What data are we NOT collecting, but we should be?
  • Can we start collecting relevant data that we’re not collecting today?  If so, what are the best strategy and approach?
  • How are the data that we are collecting getting integrated into our main system(s) so that we can have a current, complete picture of our supporters?
  • How are we protecting and securing our supporters’ data, both ethically and legally? And, if we’re not compliant, what do we need to do to become compliant?

You may be very far down this road already, just starting out, or somewhere along the way.  Regardless of where you are on your data management journey, the following is true for any nonprofit.  Your data is among your most valuable assets.  You likely obtain more and more of this asset every day.  Only when the data you collect are current, clean, and complete will you have the asset quality needed to best support ongoing, strategic supporter engagement, which will in turn ensure the most resources to support your organization’s mission.

For more information on how Omatic can help you with strategic, efficient, and comprehensive data collection, or for a product demonstration, please complete the form below, or contact us at info@omaticsoftware.com.

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