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How to Find Meaning in Data (Without Being a Data Analyst)

Numbers tell us amazing things, if we know how to listen. Many of our everyday actions are data-driven. When you drive your car, you know how to change lanes and make turns based on observing the cars and road around you. When you purchase a home, you make sure to consider a variety of factors like neighborhood, property value trends, local schools, access to parks and trails, and any needed repairs on the property. Data-informed decision making refers to the process of basing our decisions on observable data.

Do you get overwhelmed or intimidated thinking about using data to make decisions in your social-good organization? We understand. You got involved with your work to make a difference – not to be a data scientist. Let us show you how to use data to spur your mission forward without mastering complex mathematical formulas. It starts with developing data literacy.

What is Data Literacy?

Simply put, literacy is the ability to read and write. On a deeper level, literacy means being capable of using the written word to understand and communicate ideas. Data literacy is the ability to use data to understand and communicate ideas. For a social-good leader, data literacy means understanding the impact of your organization and how your community is better off. If that sounds just as intimidating as data analysis, it shouldn’t. You likely already have many of the skills required for developing data literacy.

Critical Thinking Skills

Some of the most important data literacy skills have little to do with technology and everything to do with critical thinking. You practice critical thinking skills when you use reason and logic to think through a problem that you are trying to solve. Common critical thinking skills include identifying relationships between ideas, recognizing logical inconsistencies, and approaching problems systematically.

Understanding Data Sources

Facts, statistics, metrics, and indicators are all meaningless without context. Understanding data starts with knowing where it came from and how it was collected. Did the information come from in-person interviews or the voluntary submission of mailed questionnaires? Are you looking at self-reported indicators or outcomes tracked by a case manager? Learning the strengths and weaknesses of different data sources helps you identify the value, quality, and reliability of the data.

Reading Charts and Graphs

While data analytics involves creating charts and graphs, data literacy primarily deals with reading them. Graphs and charts are used to communicate large quantities of information because well-constructed charts are easier to understand than detailed reports. Reading them requires paying attention to the details. Ask yourself what type of insights they convey and make sure you read the legend and any labels.

Finding Meaning

The entire purpose of collecting and interpreting data is to learn from it. Finding answers through data starts with asking questions. Your experience in your community and in the social-good sector is invaluable in determining the right questions. Some suggestions might be:

  • How do we measure success?

  • Does this information help know if we are accomplishing our mission?

  • Are people better off because of our services?

  • Are some of our programs more effective than others?

  • Are our services distributed equitably?

Telling Stories

After you find meaning in the data, you need to communicate it to stakeholders in a compelling way. Data storytelling is about more than presenting tables and charts. It requires weaving your information into a narrative that provides context and value. Humans are wired for story and studies have shown that they are far more likely to remember stories than specific data points. Whether you are presenting to community stakeholders or critical funders, communicating with a combination of data and narrative is a powerful way to demonstrate the value of what you do as an organization.

Data as an Asset

Technology, and the data that comes with, cannot replace you as an intuitive thinker. Years of experiences and personal relationships are, and will always be, the heart of social-good work. What data can be is an asset to what you already do to create positive impact in your community. Quality data can provide insights to help you make better decisions, especially in uncertain times. The right tools increase your staff efficiency by automating repetitive tasks, allowing your team more time to develop personal relationships. Data can also help you secure more reliable funding by strengthening your grant applications. Understanding data empowers you as you work to create positive change in your community.

SureImpact is a purpose-built impact management platform that is designed for social-good providers by social-good providers. SureImpact provides a data collection and impact reporting infrastructure to empower nonprofit leaders as they develop and follow a data-driven strategy. SureImpact Analytics powers impactful, data-driven decisions, making it simpler and faster to automatically deliver purposeful insights to your whole team. This quick access to insights will enable you to change more lives than ever before.

Check out an interactive tour of SureImpact Analytics.


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