Using its data better helps charity For Jimmy do its job better- here a group of year 8 pupils from Harris Boys' Academy in East Dulwich are signing a shop up as a Safe Haven on Peckham Rye Lane in London.

Being smarter with your charity's data

For Jimmy works to make communities safer for young people by building a legacy of peace in memory of Jimmy Mizen, who was senselessly murdered aged 16 in May 2008. Jimmy’s family vowed to ensure something good came of his death. The Jimmy Mizen Foundation, now For Jimmy, was founded in 2009. Its mission is to share Jimmy’s story to help all young people fulfil their potential, striving toward a vision of a world characterised by communities we all want to live in, where a young person can go into their local shop and always return home safely.

Much of the charity’s work involves work with school pupils. For Jimmy’s flagship school programme is carried out in primary and secondary schools in Lewisham, south east London, and supports pupils who have been identified as socially and academically at risk. The charity runs a series of highly interactive workshops both within and outside the school that help students develop life skills and instills a sense of personal responsibility for their local community.

As part of the programme, they also spend time in their community creating “Safe Havens”, where they build relationships with shopkeepers, police officers and local people in order to create safe spaces along their high streets that they can turn to when in danger.

Lack of data consistency

Like most charities, we’ve long been collecting data about our work. This information comes from a multitude of sources. We have everything from lists of newsletter recipients to records of the number of children attending our awareness talks in certain areas, to tracking the academic progress of the young people we’ve worked with.

Yet the advantage of collecting data from such a diverse range of sources at the same time provides its drawback. We’d worked with law firm Mayer Brown on compliance, and sought to ensure that the data we were collecting from schools was protected. However, as a small charity with little experience in this area, our information was collected and stored on a rather haphazard, ad hoc basis – a quote from a trustee here, a list of talk attendees there. There was little consistency in our methods of reporting and collection, and little by the way of those oh-so-valuable hard numbers.

What made things more difficult was that we had a number of departments, all collecting information from different places for their own uses. The lack of consistency in their approach meant they were unable to effectively share data with one and other.

Nor could we update the data in a systematic way, given that each time it was gathered, it was collected in different formats. Plus, as our programmes changed and expanded, there was no reliable evidence that could help us decide how to best allocate our resources.

This all amounted to a sprawling mass of information, light on both impact and accessibility. Despite our richness in terms of data, we were unsure exactly what to do with it or how to communicate it.

Taking action

That’s why we were so keen to work with data company Aimia. data philanthropy week. We were honoured to be one of six charities to participate in Aimia’s data swarms. We began with a few initial meetings to really drill down into the problem and to allow Aimia’s team to get to grips with our use of data. Discussions led us to the main purpose of our work together: to create a single dashboard containing all of For Jimmy’s data. We wanted frameworks to improve the effectiveness of our work, increase donations and showcase our impact.

A dashboard is a visualisation tool that displays an organisation’s data in a clear and accessible way. Dashboards consolidate and arrange a wide variety of information on a single screen, but can tailor the data shown for specific roles and departments.

Such a structure would enable us to consistently record data across the charity, which in turn allows the data to be accessed, updated, used and flexibly combined across all of our departments. The dashboard would also allow us to cut data in different ways, because it allows the different data fields to be searched and ordered flexibly. For example, by sorting it according to postcode, we could track our expansion across the UK, and provide powerful evidence of our increasing reach to potential benefactors.

The first step in creating the dashboard was to hold an internal "data swarm" to evaluate and interpret prior to cleansing, during which we drew together our whole collection of data - no small task! Doing this really hammered home the huge volume of data within the charity, much of which we had never done anything with. In fact, at this stage it could hardly be called a data collection. A more apt description might have been a data mess.

One of Aimia’s data analysts got to work on "cleansing" the data. This essentially means formatting the information so it can become useful. Very simply, the data all needs to be in the same format. This exercise also means that, long term, data entry becomes a faster and more democratic process.

A single dashboard

Then to the exciting part – the main data swarm. We had already worked alongside the analyst to gather a team of his analyst colleagues with the necessary technical skills to help create the dashboard and draw out insights. Each analyst worked on a specific task or area of the dashboard.

We were on hand throughout the day to answer questions about the data, such as where a particular donation came from or how it was used. It was important that the new system was created precisely for how For Jimmy would be using it. While, of course, there are best practices in the use of data, no two charities have identical needs.

Key areas of focus

Splitting out the different areas of data we work with helped us to clarify how we could use this data, what we should prioritise, and what was the important information to communicate to stakeholders and in funding applications.

Donations provided a major area of focus, for the first time allowing us to seriously analyse who and where our donors are. Who are the biggest contributors? Do they donate regularly? How do we communicate with them? Not only could this information enlighten our marketing strategy going forward, but we are now also able to extract more specific operational details, like whether a donor has been contacted after their support has been received. Such change will make the daily running of the charity smoother and will improve our relationship with our benefactors.

Another area we looked at was how we can better utilise social media data. We were fascinated to find out the demographics of the users who were engaging with us, and to be able to make a more scientific and comprehensive exploration of which content proves most popular. It’s amazing how the smallest tweak – such as the time of day a post is published – can make a big difference. It just goes to show how data analysis should inform a charity’s operations, even the seemingly mundane, instead of being seen as a big external project.

Lessons learnt

So, a few months on from the initial data swarm, what have we learnt? In many ways, the questions raised have been more important than the answers reached. We’ve started to think about why and how we’re collecting data; it is no overstatement to say that we’ve experienced a cultural change in the way we think about data.

We urge all charities, big and small, to take a little time to reflect on their data. Collect as much as possible – yes. But think about what you’re collecting – and, most importantly, why. It’s well worth the time to get it right. Data should be part of a charity’s core structure, not just a side project.

As a small charity, our increased awareness of our data is allowing us to compete with bigger charities as we learn and grow. We’ve used the insights we drew out thinking about our data, combined with our use of the new dashboard, for 10 recent funding applications. This has provided vital hard evidence of our results which used to be too laborious – or even impossible – to find.

Taking our data further

The key for the future is to keep looking at how we can improve our use of data. For us this will involve monthly meetings with the analyst during which we’ll work on our system to ensure that data remains at the forefront of our progress. We’re continually moving further down the path to achieving this, and the ability to now use data to help our charity undoubtedly takes us further.

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