How charities are using data to do good

Sarah Handley is a senior consultant at New Philanthropy Capital. Here she explains how proper use of data can help charities prove their effectiveness.

One of many things to come under scrutiny in recent media coverage of charity wrongdoing is use of data. Can charities be trusted with the data shared by supporters? How readily are they sharing email addresses and phone numbers, given the hectoring that has been alleged by mainstream media?

Charity fundraisers have a case to answer here, and rightly so. But there’s a danger, too, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Smart, secure use of data is already central to the success of some charities, and is certainly a large part of the future for the whole sector. 

There is a story here which hasn’t been told – that data is crucial for charities, and it would be very unwise to run away from it now.

Given how good data can drive performance – think Team Sky and the marginal gains over Tour de France competitors they sought for Chris Froome, it would be absurd if charities didn’t embrace it too. Without robust data, the voluntary sector is often left working blind. It may have a sense of what works, but little evidence that this causes a positive and long-lasting change. 

If you work at NPC you get to think about this a lot, and about the prospect of using data to help charities meet the needs of their beneficiaries more efficiently and more effectively. To borrow an idea from Macmillan’s Julie Flynn, the social sector not using data is like a doctor prescribing drugs without looking at medical notes.

The Justice Data Lab is one great example of gearing-up charities to use data to learn more and then achieve more. This now permanent and free service, designed by NPC and hosted at the Ministry of Justice, allows organisations to compare the reoffending rates of the group of people with whom they have worked, to test what is effective and what is not.

Early results show good news for charities, too. As an example, the Prisoners’ Education Trust might intuitively feel that their work produces great results, but now they have some data to prove it: their work is associated with re-offending levels of 19%, which is 7% lower than the national average. Overall, the voluntary sector outperforms private companies. Collecting and crunching data isn’t just good practice, it can be decent PR for the sector as well.

Justice is just the start – this is going to happen in the world of employment, and NPC has high hopes that education and health will follow. Data in the charity sector might have a shoddy image when it comes to fundraising spreadsheets and direct mailing, but here it is essential to the basics of charities getting their work right.

Charities will need to know whether people will support more collection and use of data and as with all such collection, there is public nervousness. But popular understanding of data sharing is, contrary to some reports, pretty nuanced. A 2014 Ipsos MORI survey for the Royal Statistical Society found that how much we trust someone depends on the type of organisation we’re dealing with, and what they plan to do with our information. The NHS is seen as more trustworthy with our data than the media or insurance companies, for example. And whilst we aren’t delighted about the government sharing our information with businesses for corporate gain, we are reasonably comfortable with it being shared for ‘the benefit of services and me’.

In other words, share data reasonably and safely, and for the social good, and people will probably be fine with it.

Initiatives like the Data Labs are an encouraging sign but also remind us that the charity sector still lags well behind business and government in the way we exploit technology. The latest brouhaha around fundraising data might scare charities away from it. But if they hold their nerve, data holds out the promise of more effective charities transforming more lives for the better. And that’s what we’re in the business for.


Photo credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg