Nonprofits are experiencing an increasing level of pressure from funders and donors to have better data quality and make data-driven decisions.
Too often, poor-quality data causes managers to fill in the data gaps with anecdotal evidence. It is human nature to view things through the lens of our past experience and our hopes and dreams (or fears) for the future. Having high-quality data, however, helps to eliminate potential misinterpretations that can frustrate good internal decision-making.
For this reason, I often tell my nonprofit clients three important things that help to clarify the data quality discussion.
Poor-quality data is not much better than anecdotal evidence
There’s rarely such a thing as perfect quality data. Data describes dynamic and complex things that exist or happen in the real world. The data can be no more perfect that it is comprehensively descriptive of that thing or event. So in a best case scenario, even high quality data is imperfect—and therefore can do no more than provide strong indicators that might steer the organization in one direction or another.
Any degree to which the data quality moves away from that state of perfection decreases the strength of the indicator, to the point where the data itself becomes little better than anecdotal evidence. Data must be high-quality in order for it to tell an accurate story.
Let the data tell the story to an independent third party
Looking at data in a truly critical manner is difficult for anyone who has a vested interest in the outcome. Internal data analysts and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) personnel often provide an unbiased viewpoint, particularly if they apply a scientific approach. But getting a truly critical perspective often means having an independent third party perform an analysis of the data. Some of the best nonprofit organizations, including some of my past clients, conduct this process regularly.
Data quality is as much about process and discipline as it is about technology
Ultimately, having good quality data and letting that data tell a true story is much more about culture, process, and discipline than it is about technology tools. This is why Build takes a circumspect information strategy viewpoint that helps clients build their entire capacity to be data-driven organizations.