Learning to Trust Data

Learning to Trust Data

As we sit in the afterglow of election day, a common discussion and argument penetrating both political and non-partisan discussions is one of trust. In this case, not only who can you trust in terms of candidates, but who can you trust in terms of numbers. Polling information has long been both overly trusted as well as mis-interpreted for years, and famously shrugged off in the 1972 Nixon v. McGovern campaign in the book “How McGovern Won the Presidency and Why the Polls Were Wrong.” And as we now know that most polling information leading into the election was correct, where does that leave a nation’s trust in statistical analysis? Where does the gut reaction fit in? And how does this really relate to nonprofit fundraising and communications?

Nate Silver has become the face of election polling aggregation, and for good reason. His blog, http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/, not only predicts election results, but also uses statistical analysis of polling information to help make some of the most accurate predictions available. Many pundits questioned his methods, but in looking at his predictions, he was exceptionally accurate. Numbers won – gut feelings and political savvy fell by the waste side.

Last month, esteemed nonprofit fundraising and communications blogger Beth Kanter released her latest book, “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit,” and additionally pounded the pavement in recent months championing numbers and data as the new wave for nonprofits. How successful this message will be has yet to be seen. But one thing that cannot be denied is that numbers and statistics, rather than feelings and intuition, have their place in nonprofit management.

And there are plenty of numbers already available within nonprofit organizations. Whether it is related to donations, registrations, volunteers, or communication, there is data to be had and processed within the projects your nonprofit has already tackled. Are there trends you might be missing? Who is the most likely to donate out of a certain audience? Where are most of your biggest donors coming from? Who is the best person on your staff when it comes to new outreach? All of these questions can be answered with data.

Instincts, intuition, and gut feelings will forever have their place in political and nonprofit decisions – as they should. Numbers can only get you so far. You need some sort of understanding of what the numbers mean before they having any meaning. But ignorance of statistical, and over reliance on anecdotal, evidence is a pratfall that far too many nonprofits, regardless of size, continue to make.

In the wake of another election cycle won by the numbers, consider what facts and figures your organization might be missing. History and experience helped you get your organization where it is – allow the data already at your fingertips to launch you forward.


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