Data, Idols, Passover and Slavery

by Ken Gordon

Whenever I hear Jewish nonprofits babble about being “data driven,” I think of the classic scene from the film Glengarry Glen Ross, in which Alec Baldwin, as a slickly evil dude named Blake, announces to a drab room of beat-down salesmen:

The good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting tonight. Starting with tonight’s sit. Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. ‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize’s a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture?

Now if this is the way your org’s staff meetings are run – and I truly hope it isn’t – you people are clearly in trouble.

Fact is, data-driven nonprofits are fictional. They just don’t exist. Some might aspire to be driven by data, but aspiration is all. Yes, the phrase “data-driven day organization” sounds forceful and serious, and using it might make a development department feel rugged, but the actual execution of such a strategy could be disastrous.

Our nonprofits should incorporate data into their decisions – as they do their values, their mission, the community’s sensibility, and their instincts – but the data should always serve (serve, not lead). Data should provide landmarks to ensure that the school is headed in the proper direction, or to help a troubled org realize, “Hey, we missed the exit 57 miles ago!” and turn around.

What matters is the intelligent interpretation and application of the data at one’s disposal. A nonprofit that insists on chasing after certain key performance indicators without self-reflection – self-evaluation to ensure that they’re measuring the right stuff, moving in the right direction, accomplishing their org’s mission – will sooner or later face several types of trouble.

Beth Kanter suggests a smart direction for us to take. In her recent book, Measuring the Networking Nonprofit, she says that nonprofits should think of themselves, and act as, data-informed orgs, ones that make choices through a variety of information sources.

“Data-informed cultures are not slaves to their data,” Kanter writes, and that makes all the sense in the world. But on seeing the word “slaves,” our internal conversation about data stops. It becomes an ethical issue. A Pesach issue.

Yes, Pesach.

As Jews, we are trained to react strongly to the word slavery. To avoid slavery and choose liberty.

So what, in the present context, does it mean to be a slave to one’s data? What does it mean to be a slave? How could one’s attitude toward data cause so much trouble?

“A Jew is someone who shuns idols.” – Cynthia Ozick

The problem is that people make an idol out of data. When data is the one and only law – more important than an org’s mission or values – that org that obeys this is in danger of making foolish decisions, or worse, acting in an inhumane fashion. No matter how high their KPIs are.

But can data really be an idol?

Cynthia Ozick might say so. In her great essay on Harold Bloom, she writes about the function of idols—how they dangerously dehumanize us. “The Commandment against idols is above all a Commandment against victimization, and in behalf of pity,” writes Ozick. “The deeper the devotion to the idol, the more pitiless in tossing it its meal will be the devotee.”

To be a slave to data is to work – efficiently and thoughtlessly – in the service of numbers. If you’re unsure about what this means, recall the notorious Ponzi schemer who never failed to bring in a 10-17 percent return for his clients. On a far less successful scale, the Glengarry Glen Ross team also knows from this sort of thinking.

Consider the term “data driven.” Being “driven” suggests passivity, a loss of agency. A nonprofit should not be led by numbers, but by leaders.

We need to have a reasonable, humane relationship with data. It’s like technology – we must employ our rationality and self-consciousness to ensure that we don’t enslave ourselves to it. As Kanter writes in a blog post, “From leadership, to strategy, to decision-making, to meetings, to job descriptions – a data-informed culture has continuous improvement embedded in the way it functions.”

Data matters, but it must always put into a larger context. A human context. And for us, a Jewish context.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Ken Gordon, Social Media Manager at PEJE, invites any day schools in the audience to fill out a JData profile and join the national JDS database – which is rapidly making the field more data informed. A version of this essay is cross-posted on the PEJE Blog.