Death By a Thousand Data Points

young business man working in an officeLet me start this post by saying that data is not a bad thing. It informs our decisions much more accurately than our guts, and it keeps us honest in terms of outcomes. Both of those functions keep philanthropy moving forward in effective ways.

But too much data can also grind your effectiveness to a halt.

Let me explain. I’ve facilitated several strategic planning sessions where my clients have begun with a request for data. Together, we’ve determined which data points will be necessary for informing their strategic decisions, and I’ve mobilized the Putnam team to help collect and analyze it. We present our findings and recommendations. There is enough there to inform the planning process and move forward. This is the moment where direction can be established, next steps outlined and key decisions made! This is where strategy can begin to emerge!

But instead…the group can’t let go of the data. Rather than seizing on the finding that grantees find the application process too complex and cumbersome, and using that to make a key decision to simplify the application process, the funders say things like, “I’d like to know what software they’re using,” or “How much time are they spending on each section?” Knowing the answers to these questions won’t change the fact that grantees hate applying to this funder and that the process should change. But the funder will stall on its decision until “more data is available,” digging deeper and deeper into minutiae and detail until the purpose of the original data collection is all but lost. In the interim, their grantees are still miserable when applying, they’re annoyed that they must answer yet another round of questions from my interview team, and the funder may very well end up spending additional money for the ongoing data collection.

I call this the Data Saturation Zone, or DSZ. It’s similar to information overload. There’s simply so much data and so many other questions one could ask that eventually everything grounds to a halt and everyone is too overwhelmed by the data to make any kind of decision.

To be fair, knowing some of the deeper level of detail may help in the planning phase and be worth collecting, but not knowing it shouldn’t keep a funder from realizing that it needs to make a decision and move forward. In some cases, I’ve seen funders wade into the DSZ and stay there for a year or more!

How can you avoid the DSZ?

  • Be clear upfront about the decision you’ll need to make and the data points you’ll need to make that decision.
  • When deeper questions arise, ask yourself if the additional data is necessary for the decision at hand, or if it’s better suited for the subsequent planning or implementation that will occur after the decision is made.
  • If there are several data fans on your team, consider forming a sub-group with a separate budget to dive deeper when and where needed.
  • Determine how the data points in question might be used to evaluate the outcome of the project or program you’re planning. If they aren’t relevant to outcomes you’d like to measure, they may not be important to collect.
  • Go straight to the source. Many of our data collection efforts are through interviews with other funders, field experts, nonprofit organizations, etc. In some cases, the information you seek may be more qualitative than quantitative, and one direct conversation with a few key sources may satisfy your thirst for knowledge in ways third-party conversations simply can’t.

Bottom line? Data is valuable. Seek it intentionally. Use it wisely. And always ask how it will inform your ultimate purpose. Do these things, and you can successfully avoid the DSZ and keep your next great program or initiative from experiencing death by a thousand data points.

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. She was recently inducted into the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame, one of only six consultants chosen in 2017. In 2016 she was named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers, and authored the book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group to read an article, listen to a podcast, or check out a case study.

Challenge of the Week: Do you recognize yourself or a team member struggling in the DSZ? Email me some details at kris@putnam-consulting.com and I’ll offer a few suggestions for getting out!

“Kris asked us questions about our strategic planning that we hadn’t considered. She challenged our thinking and helped us answer key questions around the identity and purpose of our foundation. At the end, we were able to clearly articulate our value in a way that attracted new funding.”

~Dave Henderson, Board Chair, Stroke Awareness Foundation

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