Drowning in data, drafting a data checklist, and asking “WHY?”

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Now that TNB Labs is up and running, we’re receiving a lot of requests from nonprofit organizations who are perplexed about how to manage the data that they have, before they plunge any further into data analytics or think about acquiring a new data analysis tool.  This has given me a lot of opportunities to reflect on how difficult it can be for people whose expertise lies elsewhere to orient themselves to data governance.

Steve Pratt‘s blog article “Drowning in Data?” has been a huge inspiration.  In it, he explains the importance of data inventories, and offers to send the Root Cause template to anyone who requests it.  I highly recommend that you send an email to info@rootcause.org, and ask for a copy.

At the same time, as I went over Steve’s template, I had a nagging feeling that we needed something even more elementary.  Remembering my friend Bob Penna‘s exhortation of a few months before, about asking “who, when, where, what, how, and why,” I quickly drafted a data checklist that focused on those basic questions.  When I sent it to Bob, he very quickly returned it with some excellent enhancements; the most brilliant one was to start the checklist with the question “WHY?”  As he very sensibly pointed out, if you can’t come up with a good reason why you are collecting, analyzing, reporting, and archiving information, you might as well stop there.  In the absence of a persuasive answer to the question “why?” there’s no need to ask “who, when, where, what, and how;” in fact there’s no reason to collect it at all.

With that wisdom in mind, I have tweaked the draft of the data checklist, and herewith present it to you for feedback. This version is the result of a Penna/Finn collaboration:

You can view it by clicking on this link.

Before you take a look at it, I recommend reading “Drowning in Data?”  After you’ve perused the spreadsheet, I recommend reading Bob Penna’s book, “The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox.”


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One thought on “Drowning in data, drafting a data checklist, and asking “WHY?”

  1. Barbara L Hopkins 09/29/2016 at 11:17 pm Reply

    I think you need separate tabs in your spreadsheet for each type of data that’s being collected. The “who, what, why …., etc.” for performance management data doesn’t quite work. The litmus test needs to be based on your theory of change and associated framework, e.g., Results-based accountability, which asks “how much,” “how well” and “better off?” The benchmarks for communications would also ask a different set of questions. I think the problem is that there are too many people in the nonprofit world without good benchmarks for the various types of data they need to collect. Yours is a high-level categorization – I fear there are many people who wouldn’t know the right questions to ask depending on the data type in question. Save that understanding, your spreadsheet might be a hard thing to complete.

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