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Overview of Doing a Data Needs Assessment


A data needs assessment is a way to see what data an organization has, how the data structured, what they're currently doing with it, and what they want to do with it. It's a way to make reasonable suggestions to help improve the organization's whole data process.

There are a lot of things to consider when you're first thinking about doing a data needs assessment with a nonprofit. Think of this as the information gathering stage, before you even get started identifying sources for data, tools for data analysis or why you need data in the first place. 

The following framework is a suggestion, and can be changed depending on the organization's data structure and needs.

  1. Follow the data, but don't get lost in it. See what data the organization produces and what's available, and let that structure your assessment. Don't create something for the sake of using a specific technology, but focus on the path the data is taking you. At the same time, don't get lost in the data. Make sure you're keeping the bigger picture in mind, so you can see the forest for the trees.
  2. Be critical about both questions and answers. Assess the questions that are being asked. Are these reasonable questions, or are there better questions we can ask? What do we ultimately want out of the data? What do we want beyond the data? Look at the big picture questions. For those with library experience, think of it like a reference interview.
  3. Be aware of institutional capacity. Recommendations must be on par with the organization's capabilities. Start by asking about their capabilities: What sort of software do they use? How comfortable are people with technology? What sort of time can the organization dedicate to data? By asking these questions and others, you'll be able to make realistic suggestions.
  4. First figure out what they have, then what they would like to have. By analyzing the data they have, you'll be able to come up with realistic, implementable ways to transition from where there are to where they want to be. It's also important to think about this on a long-term scale: where do they want to be not only now, but in a year or two? It's important to recommend processes that will continue to help the organization over time.
  5. Think about the big picture and the organization's mission. When doing a data needs assessment, it's also important to keep in mind the purpose of the organization. Ultimately, what is the organization's mission? Do their data processes align with their mission? Do YOUR recommendations align? Make sure your recommendations facilitate the organization's overall mission.

Task Discussion