Prioritizing Data and Avoiding ‘Analysis Paralysis’

Data Analysts for Social Good

  • Breaking down data silos.
  • You don’t have to be a data analyst, but you will need to know how to collect and understand data.
  • You don’t have to use the best tools right away. It’s alright to say “This is the best tool for now.”

Andrew Means launched Data Analysts for Social Good in his spare time to address a need – a better understanding of how to use data not just to maximize inputs, but to show the importance of data to support organizations functioning more efficiently and effectively.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

NTEN: Andrew, you’ve spoken with NTEN before about your experiences with data at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. Now you work at Groupon and spend a lot of your spare time launching Data Analysts for Social Good (DASG), which offers webinars, a LinkedIn group, and an annual conference. Why did you start DASG?

Andrew Means (AM): I saw no one talking about data well. Fundraising analysts, marketing analysts, program evaluation people…everyone was so siloed. We were all using the same skills, underlying tools and methods, but applying them to different parts of our organizations. Data shouldn’t be siloed to one team or one person who pulls lists. The real power of analytics and social science research is that you can address a number of questions using the same kinds of tools and skills. And most organizations don’t know where to begin. We have very little human capital around this in the nonprofit sector although this has grown immensely over the past couple of years. DataKind and others are doing phenomenal work connecting data scientists to nonprofits, but the long-term solution is to have the next generation of executive directors, nonprofit leaders, and people entering the sector really understand these tools from the get-go.

NTEN: How are you creating a data-informed culture as you grow DASG and prepare for your second annual Do Good Data conference?

AM: The hard thing about starting an organization is that you have no data to begin with, so you have to create your own. I’m enough of an analyst to know my data points are really weak. But I try to use data as much as possible to generate content. I put out a survey in the early stages of planning the second conference, asking potential attendees what they want to learn. Now, as I line up conference speakers, I can look at that survey to make sure I’m delivering.

Another example: Every two weeks or so I send an email out to my list. I track click-to-open rates to make sure I’m giving people what they want, and sending these at effective times of day on the best days of the week. I used to believe that I should send all emails at 5:00 a.m. so that they’d be in my subscribers inboxes first thing in the morning. But when I paid attention to the numbers, I started to see a bit of a jump in opens if I sent them in the early afternoon.

I use a lot of free tools: MailChimp for email, Eventbrite for RSVPs, Google Analytics, and Google Forms. They’re fine for now. Thats something not enough people really consider. Its OK to say I have what’s necessary. I don’t want to use it forever, but it works for now and I’m moving forward. It’s worth dipping your toes in the water.

NTEN: What else should people keep in mind as they dip their toes in?

AM: We live in a world that makes it possible to measure so much, from apps that track what we eat, to Fitbits that track where we go. How do we allow these things to inform us but not control us? With that in mind, I ask myself: Is my community growing? How many people can I reach through social media? When are the best times of day to do that? Did this email outperform the list average? Its not super formal; I’m letting the data inform me, but getting the email out is more important than succumbing to analysis paralysis.

NTEN: That said, you are looking to grow DASG strategically. How do you see yourself professionalizing this organization? Is that the goal?

AM: DASG started as a happy hour 18 months ago when I sent out a few tweets. I have been surprised by its success. It’s easy to get caught up just doing the work of running a growing organization; I forget to step back and look at, say, the Eventbrite data from the past year which can help me analyze which webinars performed best. I want to standardize my email practices and create standard surveys for all webinars. I got a tremendous response when I surveyed the people who came to our first conference. So it’s about taking the time to collect the data but also to reflect on it. And for me, that’s about rhythms: taking the time weekly or monthly to reflect and plan.

NTEN: If you hired an employee, what rhythm would you want them to be in? What would you ask them to regularly report to you?

AM: Right now email is big. I’d definitely ask for regular reports on:

  • Revenue, since we have to make sure this is sustaining itself
  • Attendance at webinars and events
  • List growth for both email and LinkedIn

Where people on both the email list and LinkedIn are coming from geographically. In 2014, I’d love to do more events outside Chicago. I need to see where we have the highest concentration of subscribers.

NTEN: Why is it so important to you to create spaces where people can come together and talk data with their peers?

AM: Everyone is talking about data, but not in ways that will benefit us in the long term. Of course there are some organizations I really respect. But too often, analytics are used to maximize our inputs, not our outcomes. We use data to raise more money, attract more donors, and send effective direct mail campaigns. I’m not seeing data applied as rigorously to help us think about actually being better organizations. We need to step back and think critically about what we exist to do.