Why It Is Okay If Your Nonprofit Hates Data (And Why You Need It Anyway)

Why it is okay if your nonprofit hates data and why you need it anyway

It’s true: If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.

On one hand, I absolutely love it when nonprofiteers call Know Your Own Bone and the data and analysis provided here “controversial.” It means that I – and IMPACTS – are making people think and sparking conversations.

On the other hand, I think calling data “controversial” shows how far nonprofits have to go before they understand the need to evolve in order to be both relevant and sustainable. Data is data. Facts are facts. These ones are not biased. They are not “set up.” Their purpose is to show a true picture of the world we live in – not to make executive leaders unduly angry or defensive. But the fact that sometimes data manages to achieve this outcome is perhaps telling.

I’m the messenger. Please don’t shoot. 

The truth is that it’s good to hate data. It’s good to find data challenging, threatening, and deeply inconvenient. If you do, then you’re realizing a need to evolve. You’re thinking. You’re helping your organization move forward. Here are three reasons why it’s totally okay if your organization hates market data – and why paying attention to it is fiercely important anyway.

 

1) If data doesn’t challenge you then it doesn’t change you

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” has become a popular motivational saying (I see it making its rounds nearly every week on Pinterest.) The thing is, it’s true. It’s especially true in the case of trend data.

It seems that the more threatening we find certain data sets, the more indicative it may be of how much an organization needs to evolve to stay relevant. It’s been my experience that the organizations that pout and cross their arms are the very ones that are most behind the times. The best, most actionable, most prescient data often challenges groupthink and our notions regarding the “reality” of the world in which we live.

Which data is more likely to light a fire under you? This (peaceful, reaffirming, and rather obvious) data showing that the more satisfied a visitor is to a cultural organization, then the more likely they are to come back within two years…

IMPACTS- Intent to visit based on satisfaction

Or this data demonstrating that millennials consider art and culture to be such a relatively unimportant cause priority in today’s world that not only are they not “aging into” caring about arts and culture, but they are carrying their lack of caring along with them as they mature into more senior age cohorts?

IMPACTS millennial cause priority- arts and culture

This second graph should make you scared. It makes me scared. But it also means that we’ve uncovered an opportunity! It’s easier to tackle a beast and devise a plan when you know that it’s approaching. This data lights the path for further opportunities for exploration: Why aren’t arts and culture a cause priority for younger audiences? What’s the best gateway for getting them to care? If you hate this data, you’ll probably hate the data that arises from the follow-up questions, too. And that’s a good thing.

If you don’t hate data, then perhaps it’s not uncovering a need to grow and helping you to understand how to do that. If data’s not helping you grow, then why are you collecting it in the first place?

 

2) If data doesn’t change you then your organization (and the industry) suffers

Your organization suffers when it ignores data. If your organization doesn’t rise to the challenge of tackling current and emerging issues, then it may increasingly get swallowed by them.

Once, I was asked to give a presentation at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on millennial attitudes toward dolphin shows and the captivity of certain species. Despite being present at all of the other presentations, the organizations that had recently invested tens of millions of dollars in dolphin shows and count these types of shows as their bread and butter somehow “didn’t make it” to my talk. Today, a look at their finances reveals that they are already paying a steep price for “avoiding” hard conversations…and the market has dictated their narrative on their behalf. It’s no secret that this narrative – not to mention their impugned reputational equities – aren’t exactly thrilling these organizations who practiced data avoidance and denial as standard operating procedure.

If data doesn’t challenge us, then it doesn’t change us. If data doesn’t change us, then we face difficulties in both securing revenue and executing our missions. If we want change, we need to do more than wish for it – we need to embrace it and carry it out.

That’s another good reason to hate data: It makes us realize that we have a lot of hard work to do. (But that’s kind of a good thing, too.)

Comic- Who wants change?

 

3) Data resets your organization’s warped notion of time

Data doesn’t show the future (unless it is modeled out using advanced, predictive technologies). Data shows the past because that data has already been collected. When you think about it this way, then it seems really messed up that we consider data-informed trends to be representative of the future and we use that as an argument to put off important conversations.

Think about that for a second. It’s really messed up.

If there’s data on it, then it has already happened! That doesn’t mean that data cannot be indicative of a trend’s growth or decline over time – but the data that you see…that’s already happened. People already feel that way, think that way, or do that thing!

When organizations justify putting off conversations about data and market trends because they consider trend talk to be synonymous with “the luxury of prospecting about the future,” they are, essentially, standing in a bullring hoping that they won’t be attacked while they cover their eyes and sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” (Bad metaphors, folks. I love them.)

When exploring and discussing trend data becomes part of an organization’s culture, it becomes difficult to maintain this warped sense of time. These conversations help create agile, forward-thinking, empowered organizations. We need to know what is happening in order to capitalize on opportunities to maximize financial solvency and mission execution.

 

Trend data helps organizations reframe their thinking…and reframing old-age thinking is tough stuff. It’s hard, but it’s important. There’s a lot of data that we uncover at IMPACTS that makes even me sigh and say inside, “This really, really stinks.” Some of that data is here and here. But, much like getting sick and going to the doctor, when we know what’s happening, we are empowered to more effectively and efficiently treat it before permanent damage is done.

It’s okay (and even good) to hate data sometimes. If you’re collecting any data worth collecting, then it challenges you, threatens you, and makes you think. If it doesn’t do that, then it doesn’t fulfill its purpose. Data worth collecting is easy to dislike, and that’s exactly why it makes us better.

 

Like this post? Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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*Comic credit goes to justintarte.com

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Sector Evolution, Trends 1 Comment

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

One Response to Why It Is Okay If Your Nonprofit Hates Data (And Why You Need It Anyway)

  1. Michael Dowling

    Thanks for the post, Colleen. When I worked at Nielsen Co., developing metrics for emerging ad platforms, we had an expression that said, “you can run, but you cannot hide.” While initially painful to have weaknesses exposed, as you point out, the intelligent use of data will ultimately pay dividends in the form of repeat visitation, higher member engagement, and increased earned revenues.

     

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