First Book’s Data Governance Effort To Result in More Books for More Kids

Oct 11, 2023 11:45 AM ET
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Happy teacher, Jennifer Schiffrin, smiles over a stack of books she collected for her classroom at a recent First Book and Tata Companies “truck of books” event in Mawah, New Jersey.

It’s safe to say that an organization founded on its dedication to children, equity in education and positive change-making should keep its priorities where they’re meant to be — on its mission. However, often regulations, requirements and general housekeeping gets in the way. First Book was established in 1992 to focus on children and the people and organizations that serve and believe in them. As its leadership team is aware, though, there’s a lot more to ensuring a nonprofit’s needed services are sustainable than a meaningful mission, generous donors and a strong budget.

In a world where all organizations face both the risks and benefits of electronic data collection every day, failures in the way the data is managed, or governed, can interfere with the ability of a nonprofit to succeed in its mission and its intent to remain compliant with regulations.

“Like many other nonprofits, we recently moved very quickly from a time when we didn’t have enough data to a day when we had too much,” said Chris Stine, SVP Information Technology for First Book. “With multiple accounts, duplicate entries and other challenges, we could see that addressing these concerns could help us strengthen our communications with both donors and beneficiaries, but we’re in the business of kids and books, and needed help.”

First Book is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides books and other resources to classrooms, libraries and programs serving children in need from birth to age 18 to remove barriers to quality education. Its fundamental belief is that education is the best way out of poverty for children in those circumstances — and that working to eliminate poverty, in all of its forms, should be a high priority. Providing millions of books to a network of more than 550,000 librarians, teachers, after-school programs and more, the organization succeeds, in part, because it is thoughtful about how it uses its resources. Recently, First Book received in-kind technological support from TCS.

“This project was unique because we worked closely with every one of the organization’s business units, rather than just their IT experts,” said Ninad Sathe,  Program Manager, the TCS leader for this TCS Tech4HOPE initiative. “This gave us a rare opportunity to hold deep-dive conversations about each department’s work, so we could understand their challenges in a holistic way. The quality of information provided in these day-in-the-life explorations helped make our work more effective and meaningful.”

First Book faced challenges related to data quality, data integrity and demographic reporting. It also encountered additional challenges related to the extra time and manual labor needed just to manage their collected information and ensure it was accurate, nonrepetitive and collected appropriately. Through its deep dive with First Book’s business units, the TCS team was able to learn enough to provide short-term and tactical recommendations that could help immediately, as well as long-term strategic solutions. In completing next steps and looking to First Book’s plans for future initiatives, the nonprofit’s data governance efforts will be brought to current best practice standards — a beneficial step toward helping it ensure stronger stakeholder relationships and greater availability of both funding and books for kids.

The work meant a lot to the TCS team, said Vishnu Prasadh, Delivery Partner, who noted that customers in all sectors have recently been revamping their data governance practices and advancing their implementations to meet new standards. He saw immediately that First Book would particularly benefit from innovation around data governance practices.

“This was the first corporate social responsibility initiative my team has worked on — and it’s important to all of us because First Book’s focus is literacy, one of our company priorities, as well,” said Prasadh. “We really wanted to bring out and deliver the best we had in both collective and contextual knowledge; we wanted to be sure we made a difference to their mission.”

TCS’ five-member team worked diligently, developing 21 detailed problem statements and tying specific solutions back to each. The effort revealed that most of the challenges First Book faced were with data capture, as opposed to data storage and management. The knowledge gleaned from the conversations with business units provided TCS with a deeper understanding of how data serves each part of the business. That intense understanding made developing specific and strategic solutions easy. Tactics that could be implemented immediately offered quick wins and longer-term solutions included future state mapping from the perspective of a data-driven enterprise.

Stine was impressed with how quickly and deeply the team was able to identify the problems and deliver a plan.

“The discovery process was extremely thorough as the TCS team worked with every single department individually to identify everything we needed to get our hands around,” said Stine. “Team members had great questions, and I was impressed with how easily they grasped our situation and determined our path forward.”

When the volunteer TCS data governance project team concluded its work, it was with a strong sense of reward. According to Sathe, the team’s initial in-kind gift of time and expertise was the equivalent of approximately $31,000. Stine said that cost is equivalent to distributing nearly 7,000 books to children across the United States.

“Ensuring high-quality data governance is something all businesses and nonprofits are obliged to do these days, but it was something very new to us and, from our perspective, it was just more of a ‘housekeeping’ issue than a project with mission focus,” said Stine. “Our time and budget are meant to be spent on products, cataloguing and distribution, so we’re very grateful for the capable work of the TCS team. Their generosity means we can spend that money getting kids set up for the great adventure of reading.”