How to Start and Sustain Data Quality Conversations at Your Nonprofit

 In Data, Information Strategy

Data quality conversations can be hard to get started at nonprofit organizations. The difficulty often lies in leaders wanting to generate better mission outcomes by improving data quality—but without knowing what it takes from a technical standpoint to “make data quality happen.” On the flip side of that coin, staff that have a better sense of how to technically address data quality challenges often don’t—or aren’t offered the opportunity to—use their voices effectively. 

So, what is the solution to this challenge? How can we all get started on the important conversation of how to make data quality happen? 

The best place to start every new data quality conversation at nonprofits is by talking about relationships. 

I like to tell clients that data quality, and in fact all data, is meaningless absent the context of relationships.

Nonprofit organizations have missions dedicated to serving different constituent groups—most often people, but also animals, environmental ecosystems, etc. To perform our mission-driven service, we position ourselves to be in relationship to others, and we describe those others and our relationship to them using data. 

Data Managers and Technologists:
Say “Let’s Talk About Relationships”

To be most effective at starting meaningful data quality conversations, don’t start with the technical. Don’t lead with a data governance framework, a new method for improving business process documentation, etc. People are much more open to talking about relationships and mission than they are talking about data quality in the abstract, per se. 

Your nonprofit’s relationship to a constituent group, and the relative importance of that relationship compared to other relationships, dictates your data quality priorities and data management processes.  This is what drives you to ask the critical data quality questions, such as “How complete does my data for Group A need to be? How accurate does it need to be?”  

So, the way to get into conversations about data quality is to say: 

“Hey, we’re not shooting for perfection here, but we’re shooting to get better, so that we can have better [fundraising outcomes/program impacts/etc.]. What can we do about that? 

Well, let’s start with our relationships. What are they? What priorities or goals do we have for them? How do those priorities and goals relate to the organization’s strategic plan? 

Use that starting point of relationships to transition into questions about constituent engagement lifecycles and key processes that take place within those lifecycles. And then say,  

“What data do we need to collect as part of that process? And what sort of data quality rules do we need to build into it? What will having higher quality data allow us to do better or differently?” 

But now that we have the conversation started, how can we keep it going—and make sure it leads to real change? 

Nonprofit Business Leaders:
Say “Let’s Talk About
Data Quality 

Despite the topic of relationships being the best starting point for nonprofit data quality conversations, there still are a number of points at which that conversation can stagnate. The key ingredient to keeping these conversations moving productively—and leading to real change—is executive sponsorship and high-level participation.  

Gone are the days (if in fact they ever existed) where leaders can say “Data quality is someone else’s job—I don’t need to understand it.” In this modern era, technology and data are so integral to what nonprofit organizations seek to achieve, that every nonprofit needs executive sponsorship for and consistent participation in data quality conversations.

Without executive participation, it is difficult to sustain data quality improvement in the long-term, and very difficult to implement any organizational, department, program, or even individual changes that will be required to produce a higher degree of data quality. Unless data quality is prioritized over time, everyone will fall back into old ways. 

And shouldn’t our nonprofit leaders know the relationships of highest priority to the mission, and govern the process of managing those relationships effectively—including data about those relationships? That is hardly someone else’s job.

The Bottom Line 

  • Data quality conversations can be hard to get started at nonprofit organizations. Database managers and executives can have trouble communicating priorities. 
  • Data quality is meaningless without the context of relationships. People on your staff will be more comfortable talking about relationships and mission than data quality as an abstract. Database managers can start conversations about relationships that lead to a discussion of how to make the data on those relationships accurate over time. 
  • The key ingredient to making data quality conversations productive—and leading to real change—is executive ownership of the issue and high-level participation.
  • Nonprofit leaders are the ones who worry the most about the relationships of highest priority to the mission, and should lead the process of managing those relationships effectively—including data about those relationships. Data quality is everyone’s job.

For More Information 

See our recent webinar “How Data Quality Defines Your Organization” to learn more about what data quality is and how to build data quality conversations at your nonprofit. Be sure to contact us if you have any questions about this article! We want your data quality improvement project to be successful and look forward to helping you think through data quality conversation issues. 

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