Sian Basker Data Orchard

As part of our interview series with digital leaders, we talk to Sian Basker, Co-Chief Executive of Data Orchard, a social enterprise working to enable organisations to use data for better decisions and greater impact. Sian shares her insights on the current state of data skills in the non-profit sector and the data skills that leaders need to empower their organisations to get the best out of data.

1. What is your take on where the sector is at with data skills?

Data skills in the non-profit sector are a major weakness! I think we have to think about three broad areas.

Firstly, specialist data skills. Some of these have been established in the sector for many years, for example, database management and CRM management. Others have developed  more recently. Advances in analytics and visualisation have been almost revolutionary. We are starting to see a new ‘data profession’ around data analysts, data scientists, data engineers and data architects. The sector has some challenges competing with the private sector on wages for these skills but it can certainly give data professionals purpose and the chance of seeing a real impact through the application of their skills.

Second, everyone’s data skills. Data is part of everyone’s job regardless of job title. Data is almost like the air we breathe or the language we use to communicate. Every job role involves data in some way. We have made strides in making sure staff and volunteers can make full use of digital tools. Yet, we haven’t done so well in making sure staff and volunteers can understand, manage and use the data these tools generate.

Thirdly, leadership skills. Data and analytics requires a new string to a leader’s bow. Very few leaders have really grasped the opportunities and integrated this into their practice. Senior staff and boards need to articulate the vision and understanding of how data can be harnessed as a resource in driving their mission. Data is entwined in every aspect of leading an organisation, from strategy and planning, to service development, performance management, campaigning and influencing, and evidencing the difference an organisation makes towards its purpose. (It helps to think of data as music and your organisation as an orchestra.)

2. Why are data skills so important?

Data skills are important because our intuition and our gut feelings are not reliable tools for decision making.

Using data to inform decisions leads to better decisions. Better decisions lead to better products and services, to more effective targeting, to greater impact and to better income generation.

I think most people accept this in principle but, in practice, it can be a challenge to use data to inform decisions. Data is messy. Often organisations get locked into a vicious cycle where their data quality is poor so they don’t use it to make decisions. This means they don’t value data and so the quality remains poor.

We think there are seven themes that organisations need to focus on around data. Skills are only one of those seven (the others being: uses, analysis, tools, leadership, culture and the data itself). Skills are crucial to all of the other areas. For example: there’s no point investing in good tools if you don’t have the skills to use them. As one of my colleagues likes to say: if you want analysis, you need analysts.

What it boils down to is that without data skills you cannot make best use of your data. And you cannot understand or improve your services and your impact unless you make the best use of your data.

3. Which data skills do leaders need and what will they help them accomplish that?

Let me start by saying that leaders don’t need to become data scientists.

Leaders do need to oversee data as a resource that is as important and as powerful as people or finances. It’s a resource that needs to be nurtured and cared for. It requires investment and effort in order to maximise the rewards and benefits for the organisation.

Leaders need to be able to ask good questions. They need to be curious about what the data says and feel confident to explore and question the data they are given.

They need to understand how data can inform the strategic direction of the organisation, to check whether they are on track and to identify what needs to change.

Leaders also need to know where to turn to for help and support, both within the organisation and externally. Getting independent and impartial advice about data, technology, risk and reward is sometimes vital.

Leaders need to create a culture where people don’t feel threatened by looking at data but instead embrace it. They need to be comfortable leading conversations about data, bringing out the best in the team (data specialists and non-specialists alike) and facilitating the organisation to get better with data.

Many non-profit organisations feel that data ‘gets done to them’. In our research we have found that the number one use of data is to report to regulators or funders. This can create an incentive to use the data to paint the best picture. In turn, that can make it very hard to use data to understand what has really happened and to improve services.

Truly empowered organisations collect, analyse and use data for their own needs.

4. Tell us about your new course …

We are offering a short course, taught by humans but online, for leaders of non-profit organisations to give them the data skills they need.

We did lots of research on what data skills training is available. We found gazillions of courses on coding and techy data skills. There are plenty of academic courses in data science and AI. We couldn’t find anything out there designed for non-profit leaders.

So we created our own. It’s for leaders who have to lead their organisations to use data and analytics but are not data specialists.

It’s designed to be non-scary. It will give a good overview and perspective on everything organisations need to think about when it comes to data. It will provide a high-level strategic overview of data in organisations. Leaders who take part will gain the confidence to take their organisations and teams on a journey of improvement.

A typical data improvement journey can take 8 to 10 years. Data strategy is a long-term endeavour. This course will help leaders drive sustainable and long-term change in their organisations.

Data Orchard are running free half hour preview events for the ‘Data for non-profit leaders’ course. You’ll get to find out about the course, meet the tutors and ask any questions. You can book for either of the following dates:

Thursday 20 April 2023 at 12pm: BOOK

Tuesday 2 May 2023 at 12pm: BOOK

5. If you had to give charity leaders one tip about data that will help them this year, what would it be?

Take a data maturity assessment.

This will show you where your organisation is now and where its strengths and weaknesses are across the seven themes of data maturity. It will help you see where you’re starting from.

Even better, get the whole organisation to take a data maturity assessment. This leads to better quality conversations about data across the organisation, better understanding of what is possible and motivates and inspires people to improve.

Oh, and sign up for one of our courses!