In early 2017, a small non-profit published a free online guide to help under-resourced organizations in the social sector make better use of their data.
Sian Basker, one of the masterminds behind the guide, wasn’t sure if it would make a big impact.
There was no need to worry. More than nine months later, hundreds of non-profits around the world had downloaded the “Data Maturity Framework,” which was co-developed by U.K.-based Data Orchard. The framework identifies core themes around data management — such as leadership, culture, and information quality — and enables social sector organizations to gauge how strong or weak they are on each one. While smaller non-profits have shown the most interest in the guide, major international charities such as the Red Cross and the International Planned Parenthood Federation have also used it.
Now, with the help of a Digital Impact Grant, Data Orchard is looking to capitalize on the framework’s early momentum by developing a full range of data support services and tools for non-profits of all sizes and types.
“The social sector collects and uses lots of data, yet the power and potential of that information remains largely untapped,” says Basker, a director at Data Orchard. “Learning how to harness it is one of the sector’s most difficult challenges.”
Data Orchard was one of seven social sector organizations worldwide to receive a Digital Impact Grant in 2017. The grants, which launched two years ago with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, fund non-profit and research teams working to advance the safe, ethical, and effective use of digital resources for social good around the globe. Digital Impact, an initiative within the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS), awarded more than $200,000 in grants last year.
A critical need
The stakes for non-profits in the digital age are high, says Basker. On the one hand, non-profits and funders see enormous potential in data — and the in-depth analytics it enables — to alleviate poverty, disease outbreaks, and countless other intractable social problems. At the same time, there’s growing concern over compliance with data protection laws. In the United Kingdom, charities have been fined recently for lapses and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), set to take effect in May 2018, requires additional steps to safeguard personal information.
Says Basker: “A number of carrots and sticks are changing what has long been, in the social sector, a reactive approach to data.”
Basker, along with Data Orchard’s seven other directors, is on a mission to help non-profits be more proactive — about mining their own data and also sharing it with other organizations. Their maturity framework, for instance, identifies seven themes around information and helps non-profits identify their progress, or lack thereof, based on five stages that range from “unaware” to “mastering.” The 3-page document grew out of a 2016 Data Orchard study of data management progress at 200 U.K. non-profits and was jointly produced with the U.K. chapter of DataKind.
One reason why the framework has been so well-received, says Basker, is that it is uniquely tailored for non-profits. Other published guides are geared towards for-profit businesses and their dedicated tech staffs.
Several non-profits have told Basker that the open-source framework allowed them to have their first internal conversation about data management. Larger non-profits have seen the framework as a way to centralize disparate processes across departments and build consensus around a unified approach.
A community of ‘like-minded people’
Data Orchard sought the Digital Impact grant — its first — with big ambitions. Basker’s team hopes to develop a generic model of support services and an online self-assessment tool that any non-profit can use. As part of their project, known as Data Evolution+, Basker and her colleagues will work closely over the next year with up to 10 non-profits to help them better leverage their data. This includes auditing each participating non-profit’s data management, providing strategic counseling, training staff and leadership, and measuring its progress throughout the year. In building their support model, Data Orchard will also test the organizational policy inventory and digital data inventory within Digital Impact’s “policy wizard.”
A second part of Data Evolution+ will consist of an online self-assessment tool that gauges non-profits’ current data capabilities. Eventually, Data Orchard hopes the online tool, dubbed the Ladder of Data Awesomeness, will allow non-profits to benchmark their data capabilities against organizations of similar size within their sector.
Data Orchard will share the results of Data Evolution+, including lessons learned, at a conference in September and through social media.
“The Digital Impact grant is incredibly important to us,” says Basker, the program director of Data Evolution+. “It gives us the opportunity to take some risks. It also gives us the support of like-minded people in the Digital Impact community to critically evaluate each other’s work and contribute to making it better.”