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Thinking outside the box: Chapter 1- Fast Data

Welcome to this mini-series of 10 chapters, Thinking outside the box. This series is dedicated to looking beyond the fundraising field but become part of another industry to learn from a random article, non-relevant news, or an upcoming trend. And how do we do that? We draw parallels for the world of Philanthropy (and I am going to try not to divert towards data as always, but hey, no promises there!). Today's topic — Fast Data.

I was watching the recent episode of Patriot Act by Hasan Minhaj on Netflix — episode title: Fast Fashion. Now, I like its most episodes, but I admit, I love this one! The overall theme of this show is picking up a current topic or a piece of world news and presenting both sides of it. In Hasan's excellent presentation style, that means logical arguments in well-timed comedy. But, every episode always leaves me thinking, "what can I do in this issue really?". Most often, the answer is nothing better than "being aware and making someone else aware." But Fast Fashion was different. This episode was how the current fashion industry thrives on the change of speed in the industry. For example, people in the United States now buy, on average 60-ish items per year and change their wardrobe in almost three months for new clothing pieces. Major fashion brands take advantage of this trend by making legal and similar-looking cheaper clothing pieces the moment major fashion shows open high-end clothing styles. And to add, most of these brands are no way a friend of the environment. Using oils and tons of water is the raw material for many items that we wear on a day to day basis. And, no claims of "this is environmentally friendly clothing line" is valid either! Hasan's solution — wear your clothes longer by three more months and buy at least one second-hand cloth in a year. Wait a minute; this is not a written-recap post of the show! Let's get to point quickly.

My point is — looking at the show, I realized how we have the trend of fast data in today's world, especially Philanthropy. And, I want to talk about what's happening, why that's the case, and is there anything we could do about it. To me, Fast Data means— being so hung up on making data-driven decisions that you do not care about the data or the dependent decision or the inherent methodology of using data itself. Think about it, how many times have we seen one more excel spreadsheet passing around with some formulas in different tabs?! The fact is, in an attempt to catch the train of being data-oriented, we often lose sight of

- If we are asking the right question

- If we have the right data, both quality, and quantity-wise, to answer the question

- If not, what are we doing to collect the right data?

The last two questions are the most worrisome in Philanthropy. You see, the foundation of the Nonprofit world is not 2+2=4. Nonprofit is based on people and driven by people. So, most often, asking a question is sufficient than thinking if it's the right question. But the real problem is data dump in excel spreadsheets, with advancement teams having little to no idea of the quality and relevant quantity of data to derive meaningful insights. And, even more, risky is collecting the right data in the right format, should there be a need for it. And, this becomes a cycle, for decision after decision, where you want every decision to be backed by data that you lose sight of the essentials.

So, what do we do? Stop using data? Or stop making data-driven decisions ultimately? I would vote for neither of those. I am also not going to don't trust your data. I mean, after all, that would mean eliminating my job from this industry!

There are a few basics that you can do to manage this challenge of fast data. Now, remember, this is not a cheat sheet where you look at it and feel this is the only thing you can do. This list is more to be used as a direction than ending. So, here are some options:

1. Create a sub-team of data auditors: If you cannot hire a data auditor from outside, assign 2–3 members of your current team for this task. Let them define the objective of data auditing. Let them repeat this task every four months initially, bringing it down to six months and then finally annual in the long run. These members will get themselves educated in data auditing and make sure that your data quality is up to date.

2. Define who is involved in the data-driven decision-making process: Context of the decision and who is involved in interpreting the data is vital. Make sure your decision-making process consists of a data analyst as well — who can help in the interpretation of numbers and not bring any inherent biases of front-line fundraisers.

3. Invest in your team's data literacy: Summits, reports, conferences, or tool-kits; everything is only as useful as your team's knowledge and comfort in working with data. So, invest in empowering your team continuously. There are multiple data training resources available (including me, of course!) in improving the data literacy of your organization.

You must have heard, "Data is the new oil" many times. But I don't think that has the power unless you know anything about the oil except to start using it before others take advantage. Data will change fast, but it won't be furious if you take a pause, realize what you have / what you need, and then strategically use it. Remember, your why (i.e., decisions) should lead up to what (i.e., your data). Your what (i.e., data) should not decide your why (i.e., decisions).

Share your experiences and thoughts on this. You know never know how your story can answer someone's questions.


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