Sian Basker photo data maturity blog

As part of our interview series with leaders breaking new ground with digital during the pandemic, we spoke to Sian Basker, Co-Chief Executive at Data Orchard, about the importance of high quality data and knowing how to harness its power, and how data maturity can help charities achieve their broader aims and objectives.

1. What trends have you noticed in how charities have used data during the pandemic?

The pandemic forced most charities to rapidly rethink their approaches to engagement and delivery. The process of staff and volunteers adapting to remote online working ranged from ‘quick and efficient’ to ‘chaotic and bewildering’. Across the board, it showed information and communication are the life blood of an organisation.

For many, the crisis revealed weaknesses, whilst affording time to think about data as a ‘core asset’ and how they could make it work better for their cause. Those with highly accessible, up-to-date, reliable data and analysis were better positioned to respond than those without.

Some of the trends in data we’ve seen include better targeting of services to those who need them most. Many charities are beginning to appreciate how data helps them understand needs and target services at a more local/granular level. We’ve seen an increased emphasis on the importance of knowing who and where vulnerable and disadvantaged beneficiaries are. Emh Group, a housing and support charity in the East Midlands, is a good example. Just prior to the pandemic, they began a project to cleanse and enhance their tenant data. This helped them with an unforeseen task that arose as a result of the pandemic. As they had to re-prioritise services to focus on welfare calls to their most vulnerable residents, they were able to use their newly cleansed data to prioritise those that needed wellbeing check-ins most. In all, they completed over 70,000 calls in 12 months.

Food poverty was another area quick to respond. Again, those who better understood those at risk were better positioned to target their responses. Herefordshire Food Poverty Alliance, for example, having conducted a food poverty risk mapping exercise in 2019, were able to mobilise volunteers and services to the people and places that needed them most.

There was also an increased emphasis on connecting local knowledge and local volunteers for the digitally excluded. There has been real recognition that often those that need support most are the least likely to be digitally engaged. From food parcel deliveries to community responses to COVID-19, data has been used to streamline local responses. At the same time, in contrast, there has also been a great liberation thanks to an increase in online services. We’ve seen numerous examples of charities introducing online services that have resulted in a huge surge in demand from local people and those further away who were previously limited from accessing services, either from mobility issues or lack of transport.

We’ve seen an increased willingness and emphasis on data sharing among service providers and grant makers (e.g., partnership/community businesses) trying to better understand the impact of COVID-19 and how to respond. This is also building towards more standardisation and understanding of what kind of data they should be collecting consistently. Great examples of this include 360Giving’s COVID-19 Grants Tracker and the COVID-19 Impact Data Sharing project.

2. Tell us about the State of the Sector Data Maturity in the Not-for-Profit Sector 2020 report …

Data Orchard has been researching data maturity since 2015 and define it as an organisation’s journey towards improvement and increased capability in using data. Our Data Maturity Assessment tool, launched in 2019, is the world’s first online data maturity assessment designed specifically for the not-for-profit sector. At a high level, it allows us to rate an organisation’s data maturity on a 5-point scale: Unaware > Emerging > Learning > Developing > Mastering.

Since its launch, it’s been used by hundreds of charities looking to gain an honest assessment of their data maturity, benchmark themselves against others in their sector and use the insights to plan a path towards better use and management of their data.

Delving into the data collected during the first 15 months of use of the tool, our State of the Sector report is, again, the first of its kind. It allows us to take a snapshot of the sector as a whole and compare it to other sectors. Although the tool was designed for and with not-for-profits, organisations in the public sector, universities and commercial businesses use it too.

One of the interesting aspects of the Data Maturity Assessment tool is how repeat assessments can help an organisation track progress and re-evaluate priorities over time. In a similar fashion, we plan to repeat this analysis on a yearly basis, so we’re able to develop a picture of how the sector is developing and (hopefully) improving in its data maturity.

From our first analysis, excitingly, we’re already seeing that around one in three not-for-profits are pushing towards the forefront at the ‘developing’ stage of data maturity. Most are at the ‘learning’ stage and around one in five are lagging behind in the ‘emerging’ stage.

Our first report also identified 10 key findings:

  1. The cost of data is huge, hidden and often wasted.
  2. Most leaders don’t see the value of data.
  3. Data quality is a big challenge.
  4. A lot of data is still on paper.
  5. People don’t have good digital tools or don’t use them effectively.
  6. There’s lots of counting but not enough meaningful analysis.
  7. Only some are using data to question and challenge.
  8. Some are vulnerable around data protection and security.
  9. Most have major inefficiencies in their approach to data.
  10. There’s a lack of skills, responsibility and support around data.

We did a webinar launch of the report – you can watch the video on-demand or read the full report to see the findings in more detail.

3. How can charities improve their data maturity?

Every charity’s journey is going to be different and varies depending on where the strengths and weaknesses are. Some of the key aspects we think apply to every organisation include:

  • Work out where your charity currently is on its journey. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, which, in turn will help you prioritise actions (our Data Maturity Assessment tool can help with this).
  • Engage people across the organisation (from frontline to leadership and across all teams and departments) in thinking and talking about data.
  • Set your ambitions and goals for reaching your next stage, so that everyone has a clear picture of where you want to get to and how this will help your organisation’s broader objectives.
  • Create a plan for improvement, with clear outcomes and success criteria. This might include securing resources to implement the plan. Interestingly, when we looked at the impact of our Data Maturity Assessment tool, we found that 31% of users went on to seek funding/budget for resources like jobs, training or tools. All of those who sought resources were successful, which just goes to show that making a clearly articulated and evidenced case for resources can be fruitful!
  • Get help. Finding #10 of our State of the Sector report was that people feel there’s a lack of skills, responsibility and support around data. There are pioneers out there leading the way in accelerating data maturity and breaking new ground in data science and analytics. There is a growing network of organisations providing consultancy, training and support similar to the kind Data Orchard offer. We recently shared our list of support organisations where not-for-profits can go for help.
  • Take every opportunity to collaborate and learn from others. As a social enterprise ourselves, Data Orchard believes passionately in collaboration to advance the not-for-profit sector as a whole. You might find inspirational stories of organisational transformations in our blog and case studies. We’d always suggest you work with and learn from others … and if you’re doing pioneering work yourself, then share your learning to help others benefit more quickly.

4. With the growth of AI and machine learning and other innovations, how do you think charities’ use of data will change five years from now?

I think charities will get better and better at harnessing the power of data for their causes. From our research, around 15% are starting to use data science tools with more optimisation for efficiency, speed and effectiveness, more predictive modelling and more prescriptive/data informed approaches to service design and delivery.

Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are hailed as the next big thing, though awareness of their potential and understanding of their implications remain low. Currently, only a small proportion are using and exploring these technologies directly, outside of large scale data contexts such as health and medical research.

Grantmaking and fundraising are likely to be early adopters of such technologies over the next 5 years. Recent research from the Open Data Project indicates that as many as 15% of non-profits are indirectly using AI via a CRM software that uses the technology for donor prospecting, such as predicting what time of year a donor is most likely to give. However, there are clearly other new opportunities and risks.

Ethics and responsibility are topics of debate, especially in the context of AI’s applications in policing, criminal justice, benefits, care, social care and climate change. Over the coming years I would like to see the sector take an active role and add its voice to the debate about ensuring these technologies do no harm and are used in a way that is fairest for the least empowered in our communities. The Ada Lovelace Institute is doing important work in this regard.

Data Orchard is also pleased to be part of a global ‘digital impact community’, which offers some great educational resources about data and AI and helps us set our sights on the future and policy/campaigning implications.