A complete guide to data governance for not-for-profits

Tanya Sewell
Tanya Sewell

What is data governance and why is it important? 

Data governance is all about information accountability, security and privacy. This set of rules and practices also determines the accuracy, accessibility and utility of your data, making it one of the most important policies your organisation can define. 

When planned properly, data governance can become an unrivalled ally when it comes to achieving your organisational goals. Not only does it allow you to make the most of your information by providing valuable insights, but it also protects you from potential compliance or legal issues that could prove fatal to your mission. In fact, data governance determines everything from who can access your data to what they can do with it, in which situations, serving to protect you whilst simultaneously maximising your informational assets. 

As an overarching framework that should be adopted organisation-wide – rather than by a select few responsible for IT policy – data governance determines everything from the internal processes you follow to the tools and systems used to handle and process charity data. In fact, it determines everything that can happen to your information from initial collection through to end disposal.  

Data governance encompasses data management, ensuring that your data is kept up to date, in clean databases for stronger reporting and even stronger, data-driven decision making. Likewise, it is the force behind data quality, accuracy, completeness and compliance – all factors that have a major impact on the outcomes of your efforts.  

Six major benefits of good data governance for charities 

  1. A well-defined data governance policy helps charities to understand their impact and communicate this with their donors, volunteers and followers. This helps to drive their mission forward. 
  2. Data governance is also essential when it comes to protecting the security and privacy of donors, volunteers, employees and the communities you serve. 
  3. By improving your analytical capabilities, data governance can also be used to improve your marketing campaigns by making them more targeted, furthermore enhancing your ability to make informed decisions. 
  4. With a data governance policy in place, you will be able to eliminate any inconsistencies or errors in your data, helping to protect you from poor decision making, whilst protecting your integrity and reputation. 
  5. In terms of compliance, data governance helps to prevent breaches that can lead to potential lawsuits – especially in cases of sensitive data, such as information on minors, healthcare and legal issues, each of which are subject to strict regulation. 
  6. Finally, better data governance means better resource management. You will spend less time reconciling and reformatting data, saving valuable time and resources. Equally, you will be able to retrieve relevant information more quickly and easily, allowing for better distribution of your physical and human resources, too. 

So, how can charities improve their data governance?  

There are many actions charities can take to improve their practices, wherever they are in their data governance journey. Whether you’re just starting out or have been working on better data governance for a while, the ten tips below should allow you to make the most of your data assets in a safe and secure way.  

Get everyone on board: Make sure that everyone is aware of your data policies and best practices. All members of your team – managers, employees and volunteers – are 100% clear on what they need to do to keep data safe and up to date, defining clear responsibilities for each of your stakeholders. It’s also a good idea to include IT professionals and data governance executives in this process, whether you choose to recruit this talent internally or partner with external experts to allow you to focus on your core charitable activities with complete peace of mind.  

As human reluctance to get on board with change is the primary cause behind policy failures, it’s also a good idea to train and upskill your team. Make sure they understand the importance of what they’re doing, rather than just obliging them to take regular actions like using secure passwords without an explanation. This will make them feel like part of the mission, reducing failures caused by overwhelm or fear of any new technologies that may be involved.  

Set your core goals: Decide exactly what you would like to achieve from your data before setting new data governance standards. This will ensure that your policies are relevant and work for you.  

Know your data assets: Likewise, before taking action, it’s essential that you know exactly what data you currently have available. What value can it bring to the table? Are there any gaps and how could these gaps be filled? Do you have any current reporting practices in place – and, if so, how could these be improved?  

Improve your tools: Most charitable organisations are resource poor, meaning they often lag behind their commercial counterparts when it comes to the latest tools and technologies. Nevertheless, there are plenty of affordable tools out there that can vastly improve your data governance policies. It’s simply a case of finding the right ones for you and ensuring the rest of your data governance practices are solid to secure return on investment.  

Improve your access policies: Decide who can access your data and what they can do with it. Remember that not all users need access to all items of data, and it is possible to segment access on a need-to-know basis. This can help to improve data security and protection, without inhibiting your ability to leverage information. Likewise, not all those who can access data will need to be able to amend or improve it. Certain users will be fine with just being able to visualise information. It’s all a case of considering need and coming up with a strategy that makes sense for your organisation.  

Work on data quality: Make it best practice to remove any outdated information from your systems and do your best to fill in any gaps. This will allow more effective data analysis when the time comes.  

Monitor your KPIs: Data governance is not just about securing your data and learning how to analyse it. It’s also about tracking the results you have been able to achieve through better data practices, allowing your charity to make any improvements as required. Remember that data governance is an ongoing project – not a one-off policy to be implemented then forgotten. 

Conduct regular audits and reviews: Following on from the above, remember to conduct regular audits and reviews – not only cleaning up your data but also identifying any gaps in staff or volunteer training and following up with a plan. 

Consider external partnerships: Partnering with external data specialists can really help to take your data strategy to the next level, allowing you to get the absolute most from your campaigns without the need to recruit internal data stewards if this doesn’t fall within your team’s existing expertise. 

Become data segmentation experts: Segmenting your data – or, in other words, breaking information down into distinct categories – is an excellent way to get the most out of what’s available to you.  

All you need to know about data segmentation 

Data segmentation essentially means dividing your available data into smaller chunks, based on data types or other key parameters to allow for more efficient use. For example, you might divide your donor data into different target populations or demographics, to allow you to tailor your communications and make decisions that are better aligned with the needs, motivations and desires of specific groups.  

How can data segmentation help charities?  

By identifying common characteristics and regrouping your supporters, your team has a better chance of understanding what donors want and what drives them to donate. Once you have gleaned this understanding, you can create different version of the same content – be it written letters, emails, event posters or audiovisual social media messages – to foster a more personalised connection with those that keep your charity afloat.  

Data segmentation is also an excellent way to clean up your databases, removing any inefficiencies from the system. This makes it much easier to search for and locate specific types of donors that suit specific types of fundraising events. For instance, if you’re in need of a large volume of cash, you’ll want to use labels like ‘major givers’ to identify your most generous supporters more quickly. Segmenting by donation amount and gift size also allows you to tailor your communications in a way that’s consistent with income and giving history, so that potential supporters don’t feel pressured into giving more than they are able, which may put them off future interactions.  

Of course, donation amount is not the only useful segmentation category. You could also use geographical labels to ensure that you only invite those in the local area to appropriate events, reducing potential frustrations caused by communication overwhelm, as people outside the area may not wish to be informed of irrelevant events. Geographical tags are also a great way of determining who is affected by local problems or issues, allowing for a more targeted response to emergencies or need. 

Similarly to the above, charities may choose to segment their donor data by preferred method of communication, ensuring that people are only contacted via the channels they feel comfortable with.  

Finally, not-for-profits could segment data by length of donor relationship or frequency of donation, allowing them to determine their most valuable donors and show their appreciation.  

Five steps to effective data segmentation for not-for-profits 

  1. Improve the quality of your data, making sure that you are targeting the right audience from the outset. 
  2. Create a consistent customer experience, thinking about the donor journey carefully and making sure that you get the timing exactly right. 
  3. Identify the right labels and criteria, ensuring that everyone is clear about the intentions behind the segmentation. 
  4. Use digital tools to allow real-time tracking and data segmentation. This will allow your employees and volunteers to leverage data in the most efficient and effective way possible. 
  5. Prioritise your segments by creating a value pyramid. This will allow for better budgeting and greater donations, as well as ensuring that you always stay on top of supporter appreciation for healthy, long-lasting relationships. 

By following the steps shared in this guide, charities can safeguard their most valuable asset, leveraging the information available to them to guide their campaigns and decisions. Data segmentation is a crucial step in this process, allowing for more targeted events, communications, and results. It may not be the most exciting thing to plan but the outcomes of data governance surely will be – and the time invested will soon pay off.  

Looking for support from a data specialist? Equantiis is committed to helping our clients achieve their maximum potential by optimising their processes and technology. Contact a member of our team today to book an initial consultation.   


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Tanya Sewell
Tanya Sewell Executive Consultant