Data reporting is essential to evaluating the performance of your organization and making the decisions that shape its future.
At its core, data reporting — the process of collecting, curating, and visualizing raw data — distills critical information into a format that’s easy for the reader to grasp, providing executives and other stakeholders with the insights they need to answer strategic questions and identify both opportunities and obstacles as soon as (or even before) they arise.
Creating and designing an informative, accessible report doesn’t have to be a tall task. In fact, it’s as easy as asking “What data-driven decisions can be made from this report?”
In this quick-start guide, you’ll learn:
Civis Analytics believes in enabling and empowering productivity. By opening up data analytics and reporting to the people producing the work that drives business forward — i.e., the frontline workers who directly engage with supporters — these individuals are empowered to solve their problems on the fly, maximizing their output and granting them greater agency over the work they do.
Many organizations still adhere to a traditional top-down approach, where managers survey the available data to inform recommendations and communicate operational changes to their direct reports — a paradigm rooted in assumptions and guesswork. But Civis’s technology and tools put data directly in the hands of frontline workers, allowing them to make their own improvements based on their experiences and observations in the field, and to track their performance over time.
For example, a frontline worker might make an incremental tweak to their fundraising methods, track the results over a three-month period, and use those findings to identify other changes with the potential for even greater impact on their productivity. Managers can still keep an eye on their staff’s progress and intervene when necessary, but the day-to-day decisions are left to the people doing the day-to-day work.
Clear, accessible reporting essentially transforms a wall of data into more easily digestible metrics that enable data-driven decision making. At a high level, reporting should:
Some reports answer a single question or serve a specific audience. Others tackle multiple questions or address a wider, more diverse audience.
Creating reports using your organization’s data sets also can identify data that is unavailable. For example, you may discover that the answer to the question you’re asking does not exist in your current data structure, or that your data is missing or incomplete. Even if you have a general idea of what exists within your databases, reporting and developing visualizations can offer a clearer picture of the true quality of your organization’s data.
Missing data isn’t the only challenge facing organizations seeking to produce clear, concise reports. Within many organizations, data exists in myriad different forms and lives across many different places, like a CRM or offline activism platform.
Consider the example of a nonprofit seeking a deeper understanding of its assorted publication lists. Getting this information amounts to a scavenger hunt, because:
Building a unified, central location for your data, as well as a more mature analytics tech stack, empowers an organization to implement a more seamless experience with these reporting tools and deliver unified insights across systems.
Another challenge: organizing and aligning multiple stakeholders with differing data demands and expectations. While a nonprofit fundraising team wants to efficiently raise money, the organization’s campaign team wants to run informed and impactful campaigns, and the engagement team wants to meaningfully interact with donors and leads. There also are database administrators, data analysts, and CRM managers who manage data across different departments — and all define and prioritize metrics differently.
In this respect, data reporting is no different from journalism: you must know your audience. Identify your readers and their priorities early in the reporting process, and specify the business question that must be answered.
Moreover, organizations must understand what data truly matters before initiating the reporting process. The most valuable metrics are developed in partnership with members of technical and operational teams from across the organization, and measure some combination of performance, usability, effectiveness, and impact — whether technical, financial, or operational in nature. These metrics are based on both available data as well as the outputs and insights generated by various combinations of analytics tools.
Managing the people involved in the report-building process is critical to the end result. There are at least three fundamental phases to building effective, useful reports, and each phase requires the involvement of different team members.
This is the first draft of the report, constructed to meet the requirements outlined in Phase 1.
Once there is agreement on what information is required for inclusion in the report as well as how the report builders (i.e., data analysts and/or business intelligence analysts) will obtain that information, end users and stakeholders can adopt a hands-off approach as Phase 2 unfolds. A database administrator should be on-call during this phase in the event there are questions about locating and extracting data to build report insights — questions that can be avoided by conducting comprehensive data mapping during Phase 1.
This phase is where you are finalizing and validating the report, with all stakeholders confirming it meets their respective expectations and needs.
It may be difficult to estimate how much review time each stakeholder will require, but organizing requests and collaborating with the report editor can streamline the process. Similar to Phase 2, the database administrator may be exempt from this feedback cycle, provided there was sufficient data mapping upfront and no subsequent data validation issues or questions.
Additional recommendations for building stakeholder trust in your report include:
Not all data reports are created equal. But the best, most effective reports share these five traits:
All data included in the report must be error-free, with no outdated information, redundancies, or typos. Presenting inaccurate data is a surefire way to lose credibility with stakeholders and executive leaders, so make quality assurance a priority. In addition, the report must be thoroughly objective and exempt from any authorial bias.
The report must be easily understood by readers from across the organization, and should avoid the use of jargon and technical terms. Audiences will not consume content that is overly complex or difficult to understand, which negates the report’s existence.
Data must be collected and reports published in a timely manner in order to effectively illustrate changes between reports. Business moves faster than ever, and reporting must keep pace in order to surface problems before they spiral out of control or to identify opportunities that may be lost if the organization fails to respond proactively.
Data that is corrupted undermines the accuracy and overall value of your report. It creates a false view of the organization’s performance and can lead stakeholders down the wrong path, wasting precious resources like time, energy, and budget.
The report will clearly express its findings and insights, with an emphasis on concise, straightforward language. It will also follow standard formatting and design procedures. Information presented in a consistent manner is easier for leadership teams to understand and discuss, facilitating more effective decision making.
Accurate, accessible data reporting is essential across organizations of all shapes and sizes. It can pinpoint where to dedicate time, energy, and resources, as well as which areas require greater focus and attention. Some organizations are still struggling to grasp the fundamentals of data reporting, but the process is surprisingly simple and straightforward — provided you know the basic steps to follow.
It’s a common refrain from business leaders across sectors: They want to use data to say the right thing, distribute resources, and relentlessly measure outcomes — but there’s more data at their fingertips than ever before.
Reaching these goals poses an even greater challenge for federated organizations. The data technology and strategy that works for a national headquarters is often misaligned with the efforts of regional affiliates, meaning these organizations end up building data programs around their technology, not the other way around.
Civis Analytics takes a use case-driven approach. We blend flexible data infrastructure and consulting solutions for each client to create value in the near term, while building iteratively for the long term. We become a partner on your journey by:
In short, Civis creates an ongoing value exchange enabling federated organizations to ensure performance and accountability. National headquarters can offer affiliates a flexible infrastructure and support to help do their jobs, and receive unified reporting to measure programs on the same set of metrics.