Written by xScion
on August 21, 2018


The data modernization movement has taken hold in the commercial sector, and we’re now seeing signs that the nonprofit and association sectors are beginning to follow suit. It’s no mystery that for the most part, associations struggle with their data.

More often than not, associations find that their data is siloed, duplicative and lacking in quality control or governance. Ultimately, this leads to an environment where data cannot be trusted, where employees are forced to employ expensive and timely workarounds, and where leadership is unable to gain access to the reports and insights they need to make critical and timely decisions. But most importantly, this creates an environment that hinders associations from being able to offer maximum value to their members and to derive a maximum number of opportunities to generate non-dues revenue from their data. Why might this be the case?

One of the unique and primary functions of an association is to serve as a central and neutral hub for data collection, dissemination and deployment. This can be data that is representative of a particular industry or a particular role or profession. In many cases, an association may be the one entity that possesses the largest and most comprehensive set of data for a given industry or profession. Either way, one of the main reasons that individuals or companies pay to belong to an association is to gain access to valuable insights and information that may not otherwise be available.

Therefore, it could be inferred (depending on the organization of course) that an association’s value is directly proportionate to the quality of their data and therefore to the quality of their data operations. And by value, I’m talking about both the perceived value of paying members (what do I get for paying my membership dues?) and the ability of an organization to generate additional, non-dues revenue (are we monetizing our data in every way possible?).

With this being the case, associations are essentially data companies and need to start thinking and acting like data companies. Data modernization and maturity needs to become the foundation for all future growth and planning, not some side-project or afterthought. In the years ahead, the ability for an organization to effectively pursue their mission, to serve their members and to sustain and improve financial health, will all depend on what they do today with their data. Delaying these improvements will only lead to a more complicated and costly initiative down the road.

So, what can you do today to ensure your organization is headed in the right direction?

  1. Get an outside assessment – This may sound simple, but I can’t tell you how many organizations that I talk to have absolutely no idea what their current state of data looks like. And, this is something that’s very challenging to handle internally due in part to the politics that often arise when data becomes the focus. If you can’t start off with a clear, non-partisan view of the state of your data, formulating an effective solution will be impossible.
  2. Begin establishing data governance – We warn organizations not to get caught up in the “shiny new technology” trap. It’s very common for an organization to spend time and money on a new tool or new architecture, only to find out that their people and processes haven’t changed, thus negating any of the expected ROI from the new tech.
  3. Lay out a multi-phased roadmap – Data maturity isn’t an initiative or a project; it’s a new way of thinking and operating, and requires proper planning over an extended period of time. Many organizations make the mistake of trying to do too much in a short period of time and end up overwhelming any opportunity to create the quick wins and buy-in that are required for sustained success and scalability.
  4. Identify your data stakeholders – The “people” aspect of data maturity is often the last to get any attention and consequently, and it’s also the most critical and most difficult. Before you buy any new technology, go out and identify your data stakeholders. Within an association, there are a number of people who use and rely on data, from the C-level executives down to the early career business users. Depending on your role, data is a very personal thing and the way you view data and the challenges associated with data at your organization, can differ greatly from other users. It’s critical that all voices are heard and that all perspectives are taken into account when an organization begins the data modernization journey.

As we look to the future, membership attrition and waning sources of revenue will continue to be a growing problem for associations (among other things). Your organization’s success and your ability to both serve your members and effectively pursue your mission will be dependent on your ability to be driven by your organization’s data. The good news is, data maturity offers an opportunity for associations to better utilize and even monetize something that they already have (their data!). The key though, is managing this change in the most informed and thoughtful way possible. Rushing and mismanaging data maturity will only lead to more wasted time & money and ultimately more frustration for the entire organization.

But you have to start today… because you are a data company, whether you like it or not.