Good Data is Sexy

Category: News

Is data sexy? Is gasoline sexy? Not really—not in the micro. But I’m not sure how sexy a Ferrari can be when it can’t leave the garage. A more accurate title is “Good data can make you sexy.”

Imagine this.

  • You’re a major gift officer. You turn on your laptop, and you know what’s important to do today. You know who you should connect with. Where you should spend your most valuable resource: your time.
  • You’re a membership director. You know who is most likely to lapse, and who the best upgrade candidates are. You know the smartest and most effective way to invest your limited budget.
  • You’re a visitor services director. You can predict how many paid and volunteer staff you will need on any given day.
  • You’re a leader. You can communicate—quickly and easily—with your team about your institution’s five key strategic drivers for the year. You can show progress against your KPIs.
  • You’re…anyone. You stand before your boss (or your board) and give a crystal-clear presentation on how your plan is performing. They can see your forecast for the next six months; they trust you and have faith in your numbers. And, you have a slick dashboard.

That’s sexy.

Like anything of value, being sexy—i.e., having good data—does not come easily. The solution is not mysterious, but it’s hard. Consider: the amount of data available is growing at an exponential pace. The technology landscape seems to lend itself to data silos. A data-driven, decision-making culture can be hard to foster. Combine those factors with a limited supply of time and money, and you have something of a perfect storm.

So, what can we do to bring sexy back?

Here’s what I have learned in the last 20 years.

  • Believe that it matters. This is the most important part. If this doesn’t exist, don’t bother with the rest. It is easy to repeat phrases like “data-driven” or “donor-centered,” but when it comes time to act (read: spend money), your belief will be tested. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”
  • Appoint a Czar(ina). Three words: Accountability. Accountability. Accountability. Define what needs to be done, by when, and by whom. Then, appoint a single person to be responsible for making sure those tasks are completed.
  • Invest. Give people enough time and the right tools to do the work. This might mean bringing in outside support to provide focus or necessary (temporary) expertise.
  • Keep it simple. You don’t need artificial intelligence or bitcoin to succeed in this arena. If you do nothing more than create a scoring system to rate and understand your constituents—and actually use it—you will be near the head of the pack.
  • Be agile. It’s okay to think big. I’m a fan of large visions. But plan small. Excerpt a shortlist of tasks from your larger “to-do” list, and plan for a short timeframe: a few weeks to months. Complete those items. Set a time to pause, assess your progress, understand what is working, and compare what you had planned to reality. Learn. Adjust. Repeat with a new list.

In the end, sexy is not the aim, of course. We focus on serving our missions and believe “learning and understanding” is important. To me, learning and understanding is ultimately a data problem. It turns out, sexy is the result.