Linking up strategy, communication, and data use in nonprofit organisations


In many ways, it feels like the use of data (both about and by) the UK’s nonprofit sector has changed markedly in the eight or so years that I’ve been researching and working in this space. One thing that hasn’t changed is the need to make sure data use and wider ‘data work’ supports both an organisation’s relational and strategic aims. I’ve recently started an Innovation Fellowship at the University of Birmingham (alongside my consultancy work at Apteligen) to explore this further and run a series of workshops with organisations from across the sector.

I’ll be helping organisations to think through the fundamentals of using data strategically, including how to achieve and communicate specific aims and outcomes, as well as the broader ‘data work’ processes that take might place in an organisation. I’m not naïve to the extreme heterogeneity of the UK’s nonprofit sector and so I wasn’t sure about creating a ‘one-size fits all’ tool, but I’ve decided to base each workshop around a Strategic Data Use template. The workshops will be tailored to the needs of the organisations in the room, but will be underpinned by the template. Ideally you’d move left to right from strategic aim to communicating using data, but it might be necessary to go right to left if you have a particular stakeholder in mind where there is a predetermined form of communication. It’s deliberately very broad and open so that it is flexible to the needs of the organisation (e.g. it could be used to both plan the communication of data you are likely to collect, as well as communicate the impact of past strategic successes).

What is your strategic question or aim?What internal data can you use?What external data can you use?How will you communicate this?
What story are you trying to tell?
Task: Go through a strategic goal, section of a theory of change, or impact measurement framework, or a KPITask: Use the data audit tool to consider what data is held internallyTask: Use the external data sources overview sheet to think about what type of data might be usefulTask: Map your key stakeholders, how you typically communicate with them, and what form of data visualisation / narrative they will be responsive to
Example aim: To bid for a LA contract to provide free fitness classes to people from low-income backgrounds. Links directly to charitable aims.Example: Data on past service users held on CRM; qualitative feedback from previous participants.Example: mapping service user postcodes on Community Lens; understanding the make up of the local authority from HBAI data on Stat XploreExample: Both ward level and LA level maps and analysis of both where activities have successfully been delivered in the past in addition to where there is clear need. Accompanied with qualitative descriptions of benefits to service users.
Ethics and responsibilityData quality and limitationsOwnership and cultureSharing and storageCapacity and tools
– Who could be affected by you using data in this way?
– Do you have the necessary data policies and agreements in place?
– What steps could you take to minimise any risk of harm?
– Is the data formatted in a standardised way?
– Do you know the    source of the data, and any limitations of it or biases it may contain?
– What level of detail is provided, and what other data can it be linked to?
– Who is responsible for the (ethical) use of data in the organisation?
– Is data use supported by senior management and trustees?
– Is data used to question practice?
– Do you know what data is stored where?
– Do the right people within the organisation have access to the right data?
– Who outside of the organisation would benefit from having access to this data?
– What could be done to increase organisational capacity for data use?

– Are you using the right software and approaches for the questions you are trying to answer?

The second part of the template is encouraging participants to think about the core components of organisational data processes. It lays the groundwork for ongoing strategic and ethical use of data, and is a pre-cursor to developing a broader data strategy, which I hope for some organisations is the next step after the workshops.

Each part of the template will link to resources that I’ve developed or where appropriate, external resources (for example, the ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas is a great place to start for ‘Ethics and responsibility’). I’ll update this page with the resources after the workshops!

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