Why is Non-Profit Data Management So Hard?

1 Dec 2023

Why is it so hard for non-profits to get good data?

When we hosted a recent session with UK charities and non-profits, the data management issue came up again and again. Specifically, receiving data from third-party fundraising platforms earned unanimous groans.

The…er…passion with which some at the session talked about the lack of data standardisation prompted us to look a little closer.

It turns out there’s a lot going on here.

Data standardisation is an industry-wide problem. Which means everyone – not just fundraising partners but charities and non-profits too – has a role in improving data management standards.

First things first: What is “data standardisation”?

A definition before we get too carried away:

Data standardisation in this context refers to the contact information that a charity or non-profit stores in a CRM or data lake. 

In the session we hosted, it was the mismatch between how fundraising platforms organised contact records and how non-profits wanted to receive the information that dominated the data chat. Everything from names to donation records was wonky, which made data ingestion and activation a nightmare.

When we dug deeper, though, we realised it’s a bigger issue.

For example, crisis relief organisations use contact data to coordinate field responses. Frontline charities use it to track program recipients.

The bottom line is that bad data management delays far more than fundraising campaigns.

Can’t charities borrow data standards from other industries?

For-profit organisations keep customer records. Lots of charities also have customers – retail products are a common revenue stream.

But they also have donors, volunteers, ambassadors, benefactors, corporate partners, event participants, and program recipients. Most of these designations don’t quite fit a for-profit data model, and much detail gets lost when charities try to retrofit their record-keeping.

As such, standardising a data schema for non-profits involves more than agreeing on using “Last Name” instead of “Surname”. That’s relatively easy to solve at the software level. And contact databases are getting better at recognising potential matches.

What’s more important is developing an industry-wide schema for non-profit data management. Industry standardisation will go a long way to helping organisations establish robust data records, access critical insights, and answer the fundamental questions that help them deliver essential services.

What standardisation in non-profit data management looks like

Data standardisation starts with addressing the diversity among seemingly universal fields. These are things like first and last names, location, email, phone number – fields you might take for granted would be easy to standardise.

From there, we look at things like:

  • Standard contact types, such as donor, volunteer, recipient and ambassador (these are just examples, not an exhaustive list)
  • How contacts are organised into entities (families, households, businesses and other relationships)
  • Which attributes the industry uses, and how they’re used
  • Data analysis requirements and capabilities

Eventually, we end up with a set of shared definitions for contact types and relationships. This would be a common schema that all fundraising platforms, charities, non-profits and non-government agencies use to maintain their databases.

In practice, implementing a shared data schema isn’t as hard as you might think. Given that most fundraising platforms (and many large charity organisations) use enterprise data management platforms already, the most important transition is at the platform level.

Over time, boutique platforms will take the lead from big players. Adopting industry-standard data removes the barriers to integration and data sharing, which helps everyone.

Who develops the data schema?

As CXM consultants, we can’t solve the charity data management problem alone. And especially not in a blog. It’ll take charities, fundraising partners, software vendors and industry associations coming together to establish an industry-wide framework.

Other sectors have governing bodies, like the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) rules and Health Level Seven International (HL7) standards for patient records.

There’s nothing like that in the charity sector. In part because the “sector” is diverse, from boots-on-the-ground disaster relief to disease research, homelessness to heart health, wildlife conservation to youth centres.

This is why it’s great to see vendors already taking steps to develop standard data schemas in consultation with charities and non-profits.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 non-profit accelerator

Microsoft has been developing its Common Data Model (CDM) for non-profits since 2018. The CDM for non-profits defines 90+ industry-specific data entities and relationships.

It’s consistent, providing a standardised schema that reduces the need for custom mapping.

It’s customisable, allowing organisations to extend the model to suit their unique needs.

It’s comprehensive, covering a range of data entities that includes donors, volunteers, programs and financial data.

Unfortunately, it’s also complex to implement and dependent on Microsoft Dataverse. So, although non-profits don’t need Dynamics 365 to use the data schema, they are still locked to Microsoft’s data management ecosystem.

Salesforce NPSP

Salesforce offers something similar with the Non-profit Success Pack (NPSP). NPSP starts out with the basic Salesforce fields – Contact for individuals, Account for groups, Opportunity for in-progress revenue, Campaign for outreach – then adds custom industry-specific fields.

Like Microsoft’s CDM, Salesforce’s NPSP is comprehensive and customisable to suit specific use cases.

And like Microsoft, the Salesforce non-profit data management solution is only available to organisations using Salesforce. We know this can be prohibitively expensive despite all the advantages that come with data standardisation.

Adobe XDM

Adobe is also on the data standardisation bandwagon. However, their Experience Data Model (XDM) goes a little further than Salesforce and Microsoft.

In classic Adobe fashion, XDM extends past data ingestion to personalising interactions at scale. Yes, schemas are used to ensure consistency. But Adobe’s system is better seen as a framework for real-time progressive profiling and journey analytics.

Essentially, XDM is a pre-fab model for an Adobe Experience Platform (AEP) data schema that ensures interoperability within AEP and greater personalisation opportunities.

How relevant this will be for charities and non-profits depends on the particular use case. And it seems there is no pre-defined model for charities yet, so organisations using AEP will need custom configuration.

Why data standardisation is a headache for the non-profit sector

In fairness, the problem isn’t unique to charities and non-profits. Any time data crosses a border, whether moving from one team to another internally or travelling to a third party, there needs to be special care given to format and quality.

However, other industries have managed to overcome the data standardisation problem. We believe non-profits can do the same.

To understand how, we need to trace the source.

Standardisation issues stem from several places. In the case of non-profits importing contact data from fundraising platforms, there are four main barriers to a happy exchange:

  1. Format

Without an industry-wide data schema, there are no accepted standards, even for universal fields. The charity is left to map the fields manually or create custom fields to handle incongruities. Matching ingested contacts to existing records is a nightmare.

  1. Quality

Third parties might not check for missing or inconsistent information or data duplication, causing issues when it meets the charity’s systems.

  1. Definitions

Ignoring the universal fields, the non-profit sector desperately needs standardised definitions to separate (for example) regular donations from one-off gifts. Otherwise, the organisations don’t know how to communicate with their contacts.

  1. Frequency

This is more about activating data than receiving it. Some charities we spoke to were frustrated by delays and limits on data exports that meant they couldn’t act on insights in any timely way.

A lack of data standardisation isn’t just an annoyingly time-consuming problem. It creates a snowball effect.

Charities can’t share reliable data with governments and program partners, they can’t analyse the information to gain value-adding insights, and it’s significantly harder to make informed decisions.

Data standardisation is the foundation for the rest of the work

Industry-wide schemas are an important first step, though far from the only non-profit data management priority.

There are many other avenues that support good data management. They’ll be wobbly without a solid foundation of data standardisation, but some might stay standing long enough for the industry to get its act together.

Data governance policies

Charities and fundraising partners alike can establish policies and procedures to ensure data is collected, processed, stored and shared consistently and in compliance with best practices and relevant regulations.

Data quality tools

Most big vendors have data quality features that automatically clean, validate, and standardise customer data. These can correct typos, remove duplicates, match “First Name” to “firstname”, and highlight inconsistencies during export and ingestion.

Master Data Management (MDM)

Adopting Master Data Management solutions that create a single, centralised repository for customer data helps ensure that data is consistent and accurate within an organization.

Data validation rules

Defining and enforcing data validation rules to prevent pollution by inconsistent or incorrect data entry. For example, requiring valid email formats or phone numbers.

Data mapping

Data mapping is an indelicate workaround, but it can help align customer data across different systems and databases that come into regular contact.

Data quality audits

Regular data audits can identify and rectify discrepancies, errors and inconsistencies in contact data and data management policies.

Customer Data Platforms (CDPs)

Implementing a CDP to collect, unify, and standardise information from various sources can help charities use their data – although the quality of outputs always depends on the quality of inputs.

Data training and stewardship

Providing training and education for employees who handle contact data and appointing data stewards to oversee quality helps to ingrain data management within organisational culture.

The machine learning question

There is a chance that AI algorithms can be trained to automatically recognise and translate customer data. This might be a solution for data mapping in the future, in a similar vein to probabilistic identity matching in CDPs.

Where to from here?

Charity data management is a thorny problem with deep roots. We’re looking at it from the perspective of CXM consultants, while frontline charities are dealing with the outcomes as they try to coordinate program delivery.

In a way, non-profit data management is a microcosm of CXM. Evolutions in technology are simultaneously exposing service delivery (customer experience) issues and enabling non-profits to tackle larger challenges. At the same time, marketers and fundraisers are rapidly adjusting to new behaviours, challenges and expectations.

The good news is that data standardisation isn’t an impossible problem.

It’ll take cooperation, innovation and conversation, but the work is already underway to give charities and non-profits the tools to understand and serve their contacts better.

So, to the charities who are upset about receiving patchy data, we hear you. We understand that resources are tight, and we’d like to help you find a data management solution.

To the fundraising partners striving to provide high-quality data without breaking the rules or diverting all available resources to data management, we get it. That’s a problem we’re especially well-equipped to tackle.

And to the software vendors working with industry partners and international bodies to improve charity data management, we salute you. That can’t be an easy job.

TAP CXM is part of the journey

As CXM consultants, we work with charities and non-profits to find better solutions for contact management, customer engagement and fundraising campaigns.

We would be happy to have a conversation about your current challenges. Our expertise in data management, training and technology implementation – and our no-BS approach – makes us the ideal CXM partner for lean non-profits with big ambitions.

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