How to prioritize which data to collect and keep

One of the things that can feel overwhelming for a lot of people, whether you’re beginning to collect data for the first time or you’re trying to clean up a decade’s worth of data, is how to prioritize which data you need.

Of course, there’s data you’re required to collect and keep due to regulations, taxes, grant contracts.

And then there’s the data that you will need in the course of your operations—like where to send donation thank you letters, volunteer contact information, client names, budget totals, event attendees, etc.

But of that second category, which data do you need to keep?

And, if you’re starting out, what data should you collect that would be helpful?

Here’s how I like to answer that question:

A question you can answer using dataWhat action can the organization take based on this data?What data do you have (or can you get) that would be needed to answer this?
Example: Which social media channel generates the most conversions?Example: We can change how much time we spend on various channelsExample: Click through rate
Table to use for prioritizing data to collect

By filling in this table, I can get a lot of clarity on which data is worth keeping or collecting.

First, identify some questions you’d like to be able to answer using data.

These are typically things that might help you make a decision.  For example, is our current marketing strategy working as we’d hoped?  Is our program achieving the intended goal?  Did we budget appropriately for our technology needs? 

Next, determine what actions you could take based on answering that question.

Perhaps you’ll spend more time on your TikTok content than YouTube if that’s what the data proves to be more effective.  Maybe you’ll be able to (combined with demographic data) notice that your program is more effective for certain age groups than for others.  Or you can budget more realistically for your technology needs in the future.

Last but not least, determine what data is needed to answer that question and evaluate whether you can actually obtain that data or whether it would be ethical to collect or keep it.

Of course, there are plenty of things we’d love to be able to answer.  For example, we’d be interested to know what drives those seemingly random donations from new donors.  But maybe it’s really not feasible to obtain that data beyond how they got to our donation page (e.g., from an email vs. social media vs. something else).  Or perhaps we’d like to know how long the effect of our program lasts, but we work with a population that moves frequently. 

Then again, there’s data that is highly sensitive in nature.  Like someone’s undocumented status or the fact that an individual has contacted your organization about services related to intimate partner violence. 

If you are dealing with data that puts your constituents at risk should it end up in the wrong hands, consider whether you actually need this data to fulfill your mission and if so, what steps you can take to minimize data collected, secure it, and carefully discard it as soon as possible. 

NTEN’s Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology is a great resource to check out for more considerations for your data collection and data management practices.