Recently, a donor complained on Twitter about how she was treated after giving in memory of her beloved late mother. In the thank you note to the donor, the charity spelled the mother's name wrong. Naturally, the donor was outraged. Sadly, data problems like this happen too often.
In the charity sector, it is common to hear that "data is our most important asset." Whether it is spelling a name right, correct address information, following contact wishes, or monitoring program success, all that information is kept in a database by charities. Some of these areas, like contact preferences, include complying with government regulations. So it is clear that managing that data well is crucial.
Ironically, while data is said to be important, very few charities put their money into making sure it is good. Charities spend as little as possible at every point where data is involved starting with the salaries of the people doing the data entry. In my experience, data entry staff are often in precarious employment working on contract or part-time. The recent Decent Work report by Ontario Nonprofit Network citing research by Charity Village, notes that support staff, on average, make less than $40,000 a year. These factors contribute to employment instability.
While the people responsible for data in a charity are often the same people who make the least money, it has been my observation that very few charities give their data entry staff proper training, good support, or a correct amount of oversight. This increases the likelihood of problems.
In addition, a surprising number of charities make software decisions based on cost, without taking into account whether, or not, their chosen system is compatible with other platforms. This means that charities have to do extra work to migrate data across systems or some just simply maintain multiple databases in different places without trying to make an effort to integrate them at all.
In fairness, the over-focus on administrative overhead means charities are really reluctant to spend money on proper data management. Yet, great data can lead to valuable insights that allow a charity to run better.
While under-investment is what can get charities into this mess, proper investment can make a big difference. Compounding an already difficult situation, far too many charities also use antiquated computer systems. Using end of stage computers mean that charities operate less efficiently and less effectively. Strategic investments into new tech could be part of the solution.
The over emphasis on thinking of cost over effectiveness does more than waste of time and goodwill, it is also potentially risky. Charities have the same obligations in terms of privacy legislation as business. Too many charities have haphazard systems incapable of good data management and open them up to the risk of even more serious problems.
Charities, it is time to invest. There are so many great technology professionals willing to help and so many opportunities to transform your data from nightmare to strategic information. In a changing world, the charities who invest the least will suffer the most in the long run.
What do you think? How can charities best, and most quickly, change their practices to improve in data?
Ann Rosenfield is editor of Hilborn Charity eNews and now on record as a not-so-secret data nerd. You can reach her at email@example.com