The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once quipped, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” His observation was made in the 19th century, but eloquently describes the data management challenges many non-profits are facing today. How to see more from their data with improved analytics and reporting, so they can deliver better informed services and improve donor engagement.
As the largest education focused charity in Australia, The Smith Family supports the education of 34,000 disadvantaged children and young people through long-term financial sponsorships, and another 70,000 children through targeted learning programs.
For an organisation of this size and complexity, a single, centralised data management and reporting system would enable quicker analysis of program results so better informed adjustments could be made to improve the educational outcomes for students.
After successfully applying for a funding grant of close to $1 million from Perpetual’s IMPACT Philanthropy Partnership initiative, The Smith Family embarked on a three-year project to deliver an Enterprise Information Platform to transform data management and reporting across the organisation.
One year into the project, The Smith Family has some valuable insights to share with other non-profits considering similar projects. There’s also much philanthropists can learn as they seek to support non-profits in their transition from an analogue world into a digital one.
Tops tips for non-profits transitioning to digital
Articulate a clear vision with measurable outcomes
Ensure you clearly articulate why you are undertaking the transformation. What are the organisational outcomes you want to achieve?
“Our vision is to utilise the data, skills and corporate partnerships to transform The Smith Family into a truly data driven organisation where decisions are aided by relevant and timely information which, in turn, enables us to help more families in even more effective ways.” Dr Lisa O’Brien, The Smith Family Chief Executive Officer.
“With improved capacity for data analysis, we will better understand the factors contributing to the educational outcomes achieved by disadvantaged children and young people. At an individual level, this will enable our team members to provide more tailored support to the children, young people and families with whom we work.”
Dr Lisa O'Brien, The Smith Family Chief Executive Officer
Take one step at a time
Break the project down into smaller steps so you don’t get overwhelmed.
Like many non-profits, The Smith Family started from a situation where data was stored across multiple systems, often requiring time consuming manual extraction that didn’t support detailed or predictive analysis. Transforming into a data driven organisation would take time and meticulous planning.
“Our approach has always been to climb this mountain one step at a time, and to ensure that each step we take involves creating solid foundations for the next step.” Dr Lisa O’Brien, The Smith Family Chief Executive Officer.
Start simple, deliver often
It’s easy to get caught up in the size of the mountain to climb, but often the most impact can be made in those first few steps. Ensure that your processes allow you to deliver the ‘low hanging fruit’ early.
Image courtesy of The Smith Family
Engage technical and policy experts early
From the outset, The Smith Family worked closely with leading companies in the data domain, such as Microsoft and SAP. This expertise, coupled with the strategic recruitment of specialists into the organisation, laid the foundation for the development of a Proof of Concept, which is being rolled out selectively within the organisation.
As well as technical capability, expertise in data governance was also crucial to ensure the appropriate measures are in place to ensure the privacy and security of information. “You can’t take advantage of digital without the right governance measures in place. Existing policies and processes need to be reviewed, refined where necessary and monitored to ensure adherence,” says Dr O’Brien.
Don’t take short-cuts
Build on solid foundations. Don’t take short cuts early on – no matter how tempting. Your technical foundations will be pivotal for the ongoing development of your organisation – carrying too much technical redundancy can severely hinder progress down the line.
An important role for philanthropists to play
The Smith Family project highlights the shifting funding requirements non-profits will have as they embrace digital. Philanthropists will need to adjust their thinking in response.
“A willingness to invest in non-profits getting it right is essential. This means donors must be open to support for consultants, staffing time to ensure the right integration of operations and programs, security and infrastructure.” Caitriona Fay, Perpetual’s National Manager of Philanthropy and Non-Profit Services.
The shift to digital also requires a rethink of funding for areas previously considered as core costs. “Historically, internal costs involving technology upgrades were less likely to be supported because they were regarded as business as usual. But in the digital world, investments in these areas are fundamental to an organisation’s digital progression,” says Fay.
Donors should undertake digital due diligence and assess the strategies of non-profits considering a move from analogue systems to digital ones. It’s important to ask these sorts of questions:
- Have you considered the staffing implications? (ie. do you need to train current staff, restructure the organisation, employ staff with different skills)
- Has the board considered the digital governance implications required to protect and manage their digital assets?
- Are the appropriate digital policies in place?
- Is the board willing to invest in ongoing upgrades and security?
- Are digital risks appropriately represented within the organisation’s risk management plan?
- Have prospective users of digital tools been appropriately consulted and have their views driven the design phase?