Data is a Service: the ONE Service You Absolutely Need for 2018

By | 2018-01-02T17:11:33+00:00 January 2nd, 2018|

Data continues to get a lot of attention these days. Data is “the currency of the 21st century”, “the new oil”, the one asset without which organizations cannot survive. CSR Matters agrees with those assessments, but we would encourage our CSR colleagues to think one step further: Data is also the one service your corporate social responsibility strategy (CSR) depends upon.

That’s right, think “data is a service”. And understanding this may be the most important CSR trend for 2018 to remember … for all businesses, large and small.

What is data?

“Data”, interestingly, is a plural noun. The plural form of “datum”, which in its original Latin means “something given”, in turn from the Latin verb do / dare, meaning “to give”. Okay, enough of the high school Latin lesson.

To an analyst or scientist, “data” refers to a collection of facts, statistics, or items of information. More importantly there is no shortage of the stuff. In our digital age, with computers everywhere, the amounts of data we generate, share, store and analyze appears to be endless. It seems as if the big bang of data recently exploded and the universe of data continues expand at a pace beyond comprehension … in the volume, variety, and speed of its production.

We may not be scientists, but even in the CSR profession, we need to remember that data permeates our work, our outcomes, our world. Your giving and sustainability programs produce it. Charities need it. Leadership wants it. Auditors live for it.

And while businesses everywhere have immersed themselves in data and metrics generally, when it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility specifically, only CSR departments at the largest companies seem to have made the leap. Yet CSR is important to the success of all businesses, large and small. Back to that Latin definition for a minute: “something given”. Is data often so freely available that most of us take it for granted, become overwhelmed by the sheer volume, and /or don’t really know what to do with it? Ponder that question while you read on.

The problem with data

So data is ubiquitous. Then that should make our lives easier, right? We need it, it’s everywhere, problem solved. But not so fast.

There is a certain irony to data. Everybody wants it, but most either cannot get what they want, do not understand it when they do get it, or depend on others to collect and make sense of it.

So what is the problem?

It’s simple, actually. The CSR world still thinks of data as the byproduct of actions, such as the act of making a donation or conserving a resource or engaging an employee … something by and for scientists, technologists, and analysts. Therein lies the problem.

Data is a service

Data is so much, more than byproduct. If data truly is the new oil or life blood of an organization, then we have to think about data differently. We have recognize its priority and importance … even to CSR programs ranging from sustainable resource management to ethical corporate and employee behavior to charitable giving to employee engagement. We have to understand that data is a service. And a very necessary service at that.

Consider this example. In philanthropy, data shapes the future of any giving or CSR program – be it employee engagement, environmental sustainability, or charitable giving – it is not simply the byproduct of something that happened in the past. It should shape your future. And so your data needs to serve you.

If data is a service, then you have to be able to get it when you want it, where you want it, as much of it as you want, but not too much. It has to be understandable, meaningful, and friendly. And a good service always puts the customer – you – first.

Businesses are changing the way they interact with data

Across the business landscape, companies are changing the way they work with, depend upon, interact with data. For example, chief marketing officers are being replaced by people with data skills. Same goes for sales – sales has become much more “data driven” and much less “deal driven”. And the same goes for services.

How about areas outside of traditional business? How about sports? Sabermetrics – the empirical analysis of statistics and data – dominates professional baseball. General Managers now come from business schools, with degrees in Economics and Mathematics – GMs are no longer simply “25 year baseball guys with great instincts for the game”. Other professional sports are close behind.

In the CSR world, however, by surrendering data ownership and management to technologists and SaaS vendors, program managers continue to struggle with all manner of challenges, including:

  • Which programs are most successful?
  • How do programs measure against stakeholder / community / consumer expectations?
  • Where are resources best invested?
  • Is it time to make changes?

If all a physician ever did was give you your body temperature, you aren’t going to know much about what is really going on with your health. The same can be said of CSR programs largely limited to surface metrics. For example, a typical corporate fundraising initiative: “We raised $150,000 for three local charities,” reports ACME Inc.’s workplace giving manager. Ok, but why did donors give, how did they give, from what resources (e.g. credit cards, payroll, a personal DAF account?), when (while at work, at home, via mobile on the go?), where, and perhaps most importantly, when do the funds arrive at their destination? And all of those questions need to be answered before we can compare that initiative to others … hopefully, you get the point.

Keeping with the corporate fundraising example, if companies really want to be supportive of their favored charities, they want to provide them with more than just the funds. They will provide the data that helps the charity understand the donations, tells the story of success, set expectations for support going forward, and perhaps even budget internally.

What your data can do

When data serves your CSR organization, it is a teacher, providing the lesson-plan building blocks upon which future program success can be built, managed, assessed, taught, and improved. But data can’t serve if it isn’t present for the meeting.

So, the question for you: Does your data serve your CSR programs, initiatives, strategies?

In other words, is your data an easily accessible asset that you can tap into and immediately make sense of? Or is it still trapped within old systems, archaic platforms or third-party vendor databases? Does it require an IT guru to be understood?

To help, ask yourself these 6 questions. If you can answer ‘yes’ to at least 4 of them, your company passes. Fewer than 4, however, and you – and any charitable organizations you intend to support – need help.

  1. Can I pull up ALL of my CRS and giving program data into a single dashboard?
  2. Do I have visualization tools that let me immediately grasp the most salient information about any program or initiative?
  3. Can I can drill right down to each constituent element or data building block, letting me answer questions like: How much money did our employees give … plus our company match … to health-related organizations … last quarter … in Texas?
  4. Can I easily pull together results-oriented data from all of our CSR programs to produce an annual company CSR Report?
  5. Are our employees inspired by the stories and results of our giving or sustainability programs due to the amount and quality of information we are able to share with them?
  6. Do our stakeholders (e.g. supported charities) understand our achievements (e.g. disbursement reports)?
Bringing it home

If we have convinced you of the necessity of thinking differently about data – and I hope we have – then you are no doubt asking a lot more questions. Questions such as:

  • How do I pull together data from many different systems?
  • We have so much data, how do we prioritize? Which data sets do we need … do we ignore?
  • How do we analyze? What are we looking for?
  • I don’t know if our employees are inspired or not – now what?
  • How do we compare to our peers?

If you are asking more questions, then that is a good start. This applies to businesses large and small, to CSR programs old and new. Are your CSR programs and the systems on which they run in need of a data check up? Contact CSR Matters and let’s discuss the challenges you are facing. We want to help.

About the Author:

A Principal at CSR Matters, Gary has 25+ years of experience working in Corporate Social Responsibility, including nonprofits, software development and the financial services industries. "It's a labor of love. I have a number of professional interests, and they all intersect with CSR." Over the past several years, he has been actively involved in the acquisition, growth and consolidation of a number of companies in the CSR space, including AmeriGives, Good Done Great, WPG Solutions, and Dexterity Ventures, plus donor advised funds DonateWell and Place2Give. Gary's prior experience includes leadership positions with Bank of America, United Way and KindMark. To learn more about the breadth and depth of Gary's operational, financial and executive experience, please visit https://www.linkedin.com/in/gpfcarr/.