Data Governance. It Matters. And You Are Already Doing It.

Dictionary, focused on the definition of technology

We Take a Weighty Term and Make it “Common Sense” Doable.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Data Governance. As awareness grows, many of our clients are generally feeling like they need to work on their data governance, and some are asking us if we can help.  In response, I’ve decided to write a blog series about this mysterious new-to-many and important subject. 

In this series, I’ll describe what Data Governance is (this post) and why it’s important, and provide you with a framework for understanding and improving Data Governance in your organization, regardless of where you are on the Data Governance spectrum. 

So let’s start with what it is. In the simplest terms, it’s being intentional about your data so that you can trust it and use it. 

Data governance is the formalization of behavior around the definition, production, and use of data. It manages risk related to data and improves the quality and usability of data for an organization. 

A Data Governance program provides direction and oversight for data management. It does this in three ways: 

First by establishing a system for making decisions about data.

Then by creating policies that reflect the decisions you have made.

Finally, by making sure staff manage data according to your Data Governance policies. In other words, it creates a unified and sustainable framework for managing data and holding staff accountable for how they work with data. 

There are two areas where you probably already think about Data Governance.

One is data quality. Most people who interact regularly with data struggle with missing data, poorly defined data, and data that isn’t usable for analysis and insights, even though it’s been entered (it might be the wrong data, the wrong format, etc.). If you’ve ever run a report to see how much missing data you have, or asked a colleague whether that donor’s name is actually Dsdlfgkjsdlkj, you’ve already stepped into the world of data governance. 

Another area most people are familiar with is data compliance. If you work with HIPAA data you’re already very familiar with the importance of being clear on how you make decisions about data, and holding people accountable for the proper management of sensitive data. If you’ve ever made a decision about how sensitive data is handled (PUT DOWN THAT THUMB DRIVE!) or reprimanded someone for printing out social security numbers and leaving them lying around, you’ve already done some Data Governance. 

Several developments in the last few years have made Data Governance more important than ever. One is the growing amount of data that organizations are dealing with. I’m not just talking about “Big Data” such as the information coming from banks or other large institutions, or the constant stream of information coming from devices, or the Internet of Things. Nonprofit organizations are seeing the quantity of data they collect grow exponentially. This may be because you’re collecting more information electronically with the use of cloud-based data systems. Many organizations are dealing with more data because the tools they use to do the work have changed. This is related to another popular term (not easily defined): Digital Transformation. The digital part of Digital Transformation means that organizations are collecting and analyzing a lot more data than they were ten years ago. That shift has changed the capacity of nonprofits to have data, which puts pressure on the responsibility to report on that data. 

Other growth points might be sharing more data with partners, storing more data about your members and their transactions, and linking to additional data sources. The more data you have, coming from more sources, the more the data starts to become unwieldy and unknown. Implementing a strong Data Governance policy will improve your data’s accuracy and usefulness. 

More people are also interacting with this data. In the past, an IT person, Data Analyst, or Evaluator was the primary staff member who had contact with the data in your organization. Now the Executive Director is looking at dashboards, the CFO is running reports on finances, the Program Directors are looking at performance measures, the Development Director has three different databases for digital and direct marketing and planned giving, and the Evaluator still needs those reports for funders. And I’m not even talking about all the people CREATING that data, like frontline staff, bookkeepers, and third-party data creators like Google Analytics, Zoom, or Cvent. As more people interact with your data it becomes more important to think about making sure that everyone works with the data according to policies that have been decided beforehand. 

Finally, there are legal regulations that require that your organization’s staff  be compliant with specific data management standards (HIPAA, FERPA, and GDPR) and that your organization have clear policies about how you work with sensitive data. It’s your organization’s responsibility to ensure that all people interacting with your data are doing so in a compliant manner. 

What CAN be hard about Data Governance is getting your mind around the spectrum of actions and policies that it involves.

As I mentioned above, it can be as simple as looking at data quality or handling your sensitive data differently. It can also be as complicated as having five Data Governance committees and 12 defined roles, 100-page policy documents included. 

So the question is, where do we start? And the answer, as always, is to start where you are. Data Governance is not an all-or-nothing standard. (Don’t tell anyone we said this, but HIPAA compliance isn’t either… more on that at GoodTech Fest in May). 

In our next posts we’ll present a framework for improving your Data Governance. Notice we didn’t say creating Data Governance or a Data Governance policy, framework, or standards. That’s because I’m confident that you already do some level of Data Governance. The key is to identify where it’s happening (or not), and how you can do a little better. Data Governance is a spectrum, and implementing improvements is always an ongoing process.

We’ll cover instructions, defining terms, helping you figure out where to start, and some links to useful resources. 

To keep up with the series, join our newsletter list and you’ll  receive an email each month when a new blog post is available. 

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Most nonprofits spend days putting together reports for board meetings and funders. The Inciter team brings together data from many sources to create easy and effortless reports. Our clients go from spending days on their reports, to just minutes.