Who Cares About the Numbers!

By Batya Kopelowitz

I love numbers. I love how universal they are. One plus one equals two no matter where in the world you are. I love that numbers give us a shared language, no matter what language you speak.

After earning an undergraduate degree in business, I entered the nonprofit world more than a decade ago and was surprised at how much of a reliance there was on anecdotal information and how little data factored into decision making.

According to research conducted by PWC, “highly data-driven organizations are three times more likely to report significant improvements in decision-making compared to those who rely less on data.” In the business world, the reliance on quantitative metrics is dictated by the very definition of a for-profit: Are you making more money than you are spending?

Of course, measuring success as a not-for-profit organization is much more nebulous and difficult to define. Yet, over the past few years, there has been a noticeable shift toward data-driven decisions as reliance on performance metrics has become accepted best practice.

Accordingly, nonprofit professionals started talking a lot more about numbers:

“We are not going to meet our numbers.”

“We need to up our numbers.”

“We have exceeded our numbers!”

Then COVID-19 happened, and the world changed. For the time-being, there are no more gatherings or meetups. We are no longer able to hold in-person team meetings or large convenings. Our world and our work, as we knew it, is different now.

Now, nonprofit professionals started talking even more about the numbers.

“We are never going to meet our numbers now.”

Here’s my response: WHO CARES ABOUT THE NUMBERS!

Let us stop focusing so much on the numbers. The numbers are not our impact. The impact we make is on the people we serve. Each data point is a person, a person with a story, a journey, and a reason why they are engaging with your organization. The pendulum has swung too far.

Numbers are inherently fallible. They are collected by humans, analyzed by humans, and interpreted by humans, and are, therefore, subject to biases and limitations. As Andrea Jones-Rooy, professor of data science at NYU, writes in Quartz, “data is an imperfect approximation of some aspect of the world at a certain time and place.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example. 

Each of our organizations’ numbers are going to be down significantly. Taken out of context, that might mean that we all did a poor job this year. Of course, this is not true. We are dealing with a worldwide pandemic that calls for social distancing, a direct contrast to many of our organization’s bread and butter model of in-person engagement.

At the same time, we still need to be paying attention to the numbers, especially as we pivot to adapt to our new virtual reality and the changing needs of our constituents. We should be using the numbers to ask ourselves the questions: 

What can we learn about the different interventions that we are offering? What is working and what is not?

As we start to rebuild a different post-COVID world, let us try to find the balance. Data is important. It helps to inform our work and focus our resources, but it is not our impact. Our impact is illustrated by the people’s lives we change for the better. Data is just one tool that helps us do so.

Batya Kopelowitz is associate vice president for measurement at Hillel International.