Help Wanted: Must Be Curious

Over twenty years ago, I was convinced that law school was my future. Then I learned how to write HTML and design websites, and my career path went in a very different direction. There are moments in time when opportunities arise and you just have to take them. I firmly believe we are witnessing another one of those moments of opportunity for people working in the nonprofit sector.

We live in a time when data and information are changing how we work and are amplifying the results. For nearly two years now, I’ve been researching and writing about how people in the nonprofit sector are using data to drive real change. What I found along the way is explored in the new book Data Driven Nonprofits.

It is clear from talking with lots of nonprofit professionals that understanding and using data is one of the most important skills that you can possess today. And there is little doubt that data literacy and data science are also valuable skills for the future, too.

Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, once said, “The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians. People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer engineers would’ve been the sexy job of the 1990s?” This is a good prediction, but does it mean we all need to be trained statisticians?

Common Denominator

You might be surprised to hear that one of the common threads I’ve found among successful data driven professionals is not a statistics background or deep data science know-how. Instead, the common denominator has been natural curiosity. Data driven professionals are people who always ask why something happened, how we can make something happen, and what we can best do to improve results.

Curiosity appears to be the secret ingredient, combined with data and know-how, to solve a problem. Just having the hard skills is not enough. You should consider curiosity to be the non-functional requirement to maximize your potential in a more data driven world.

Choose Your Own Data Adventure

If you are at the beginning of your nonprofit career, then nothing is going to shape your ability to make an impact on the world more than the ability to use data. Yes, there will be times when people will want to use their years of experience to shoot down your ideas. My advice is to always speak softly and bring data. Put the time in now to learn and increase your data muscle tone.

If you are in the middle of your nonprofit career, then your key to being a leader and going to the next level will be greatly influenced by your data skills. You need to get out of your comfort zone and sharpen your data literacy and presentation skills. Maybe skip that conference session on social media and go to the analytics presentation down the hall. Put down the latest piece of fiction and grab a book on the subject of data or analytics.

If you are in the twilight years of your nonprofit career, then being a champion for more use of data is one of the best ways to leave your mark. Let’s be honest—it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to learn regression analysis or machine learning algorithms. But you can help your board members, staff, and team members to embrace the use of data. The simple act of asking people, “What data do we have, and how can that help us make a decision” can get things moving in the right direction.

Numeracy and Literacy

As children, three of the most valuable skills we learned were to read, write, and count. You are probably very familiar the term literacy, but what about its numerical equivalent? Numeracy is the ability to understand and work with numbers. In a data driven world, the importance of data literacy takes on big importance.

Data literacy is one of the most valuable skills that you can have today and as you move into the future. A data literate person possesses the skills to gather, analyze, and communicate information to support decision-making. The communication of information includes speaking, writing, and visualization.

General literacy is the skill that allows us to derive information from the written word. To be data literate means layering in another set of skills to get meaning, to communicate, and to make decisions with the data you use on a daily basis.

Notice that this has nothing to do with the technology involved or the data science skills required to develop things like predictive models. Instead, the key to data literacy is being able to use the information to make decisions. This also requires us to be able to recognize when the data we are being shown might be misleading or used in an inappropriate way.

Be More Data Driven

Now, numbers may not be your thing. I get it. You’re getting this advice from someone who was a “D” student in calculus and has put a lot of time into being a numbers person. This is why being curious and wanting to understand how things work can help you to level up your skills.

Thirty years ago, if you did anything with computers, people described what you did as “working with computers.” Today, everyone uses computers and it’s not a specialty. Twenty years ago, if you did anything with the internet, then people described what you did as “working with the internet.” Today, everyone uses the internet and it’s not a specialty.

Ten years from now, we are all going to be working with data. You won’t be able to escape using data and information, whether your focus is on technology, marketing, programs, advocacy, fundraising, or outcomes. Data will not be a specialty. It will be the way people measure, manage, and decide how things are done. Choosing to be more data driven today is the key to being more successful tomorrow.

Steve MacLaughlin
Director of the Idea Lab
Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and best-selling author of Data Driven Nonprofits. MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and on National Public Radio. MacLaughlin serves on the board of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and is a frequent speaker at conferences and events. Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.