Data Governance for NFP: Why You Need It & How To Get Started Today

By - January 25, 2022

When searching through the abyss of the internet for “data governance”, it can be overwhelming. The questions come pouring out: What is data governance? How can my nonprofit organization benefit from the implementation of a Data Governance program? How do I “do” data governance? Why should my nonprofit care about data governance? Answers to these questions are spread across the Internet, sometimes difficult to uncover and synthesize. Look no further, you’ve come to the right place. This post will allow you to discover simple and actionable answers to all things data governance and how it can help grow and improve your nonprofit organization.

What is Data Governance?

Data governance can be overwhelming as it impacts all areas across the organization.  The Data Governance Institute (DGI) defines it as “a system of decision rights and accountabilities for information-related processes, executed according to agreed-upon models which describe who can take what actions with what information, and when, under what circumstances, using what methods.” This complex and jargon-filled definition can be broken down into one simple idea: Data Governance is a process made up of rules and principles that defines how data is handled. However, you do not need to use this definition as your “all-in” definition of what governance is. Your organization’s standards and rules may differ from the one across the street because the goals of each organization are different. Short- and long-term goals that are decided upon will drive the definition and program of data governance in your organization.

Typically, when an organization wants to pursue a data governance initiative, the first step is to put a program in place. A typical governance program includes executives, those taking on IT roles, key stakeholders, and day-to-day end users.  These programs will vary depending on the size of the organization and their data complexity. However, at the end of the day, all governance programs share common goals and key themes, including:

  • Data Management: This represents the processes that ensure reference data is kept up to date and coordinated across an enterprise.
  • Data Cleansing: Clean data in means clean data out (reporting). Cleansed and defined data allows for stronger reporting capabilities and data-driven decision making. Remember, bad data in means bad data out.
  • Data Quality: This is the degree to which data is accurate, complete, timely, consistent with all requirements and organizational rules, and relevant for a given use.
  • Data Security: Governance programs ensure privacy and confidentiality, while preventing unauthorized inappropriate use of data and information.
  • Standard Operating Procedures: Having these in place will give specific guidance for your organization. These procedures would include managing data and report sharing across your organization, establishing processes for your organization to adhere to and provide end users with a governed foundation of approved governance policies.
  • Formalized Organizational Structure: Data governance programs allow you to restructure roles around data. This includes roles like data stewards, data experts, and data governors. Having a formalized program and structure in places allows the organization to take control over who has access to what data and when.

What can Data Governance do for Nonprofits?

Nonprofits especially should have vested interest in Data Governance because of the following factors:

  • Type of Data: Nonprofits often handle data about children, health care, and legal matters. This data is subject to strict regulation, so this sensitive information needs to be handled securely and responsibly across the organization.
  • Organizational Impact: Nonprofits particularly are interested in evaluating the impact their organization has on the communities and populations they serve. Keeping data governance at the forefront results in streamlined and up-to-date information delivery to drive effective, organizational decision making.
  • Limited Resources: Nonprofits are often impacted by an overall lack of funds and resources, particularly for things like IT. Having a robust data governance framework can substantially decrease and even eliminate the time spent repeatedly reconciling and reformatting data, ultimately saving valuable time and resources.
  • Ownership Complexities: Data is shared by multiple owners, even once it is given to the organization. A $200 donation or two hours of someone’s voluntary time is easier for the nonprofit to claim ownership of than, say, a list of email addresses. Data and digital assets whose transfer of control is less straightforward are imperative for the organization to govern securely and responsibly.

With these considerations in mind, it’s important to think about your own organization. What kind of information do we handle and how sensitive is it? What are we doing to ensure that data coming in is handled safely and securely? Who has access to our data and how are they using it? Beginning to formulate answers to these questions is a great first step in identifying where you may need to seek additional guidance.


This all sounds great, but what next? Governance is an ongoing process, but there are a few quick wins to get you started.

  • Get the organization and IT involved: It takes the effort and dedication of all stewards to ensure good results. Change is inevitable and change is difficult for people. It will be slow and challenging, but it takes everyone’s participation.
  • Establish frameworks and policies: Putting rules and policies in place for everyone to follow is a key part of governance programs. Here are some actionable steps to get started:
    • Create your charter: This is the goal in which you want your data and standards to adhere to
    • Determine what the core goal is: Every program has a core goal they want to achieve, for example, “Ensuring data is accurate, valid, and continuously managed”
    • Determine who your core team of data stewards are: Those subject matter experts who own data and its validity
    • Define your data: What does your data mean to your organization? How is your organization using and reporting off of this data? The definitions should be consistent across all users
    • Establish Controls: Ensuring data stays cleaned and managed, continuously
    • Communicate change: Governance programs require change, be sure to communicate it across the organization early and often
  • Keep it going: Governance is not a short-term process. It takes time and is an ongoing activity for the organization. It takes time to get everyone on board with the rules, so get creative and find ways to keep people incentivized to keep participating.

Governance is an ongoing, repetitive process that ensures continuous management and control around your organization’s most important asset: data. It is a combined effort across an organization that allows teams to bridge their communication gaps and offer a transparent, structured, and standardized way of managing its data and processes.

Data governance allows nonprofit organizations to take control of their data and data-related assets. You will not only have the power to make actionable decisions, but you will be able to trust the decisions you are making. Using structured programs, established rules, and cleaned, managed, and secure data, you will have the power to transform the way you impact the populations and communities that you serve.

If you have any further questions or are looking for further guidance or resources, please reach out to the BI Team and RSM!

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