There isn’t a lot to do at my wife’s family summer cottage when it rains, especially if I’ve forgotten to bring a book. I find myself scanning the shelves for something — anything — to read. On one such recent rainy weekend, I picked up a book my niece had left on a table. It was a heavy hardcover textbook, and it contained a mild surprise.
What I found was an introduction to such topics as liner and non-linear relationships, probability, scatterplots, best-fit lines, and correlation — concepts that I’ve come to have a deep interest in, mainly because I have profitably put them to work in the service of fundraising and alumni engagement.
Was this a college textbook? A manual for budding data scientists?
No, not at all. My niece is in Grade 9, and this was her mathematics textbook.
I don’t know if the Nova Scotia math curriculum is typical, nor am I qualified to judge the quality of a textbook. And my niece may not be thrilled about learning statistics. But some group of experts in math education apparently believe these concepts are well within the grasp of young Nova Scotian minds. Power to them.
What does this have to do with you? Yes, plastic young minds may grasp with relative ease what we oldsters struggle with (new languages, for example), but we have one distinct advantage. Where adolescents view these concepts as abstractions without a purpose, we may immediately see how we can use them to advance our causes, and our careers.
Yet, we all know otherwise intelligent people in our field whose eyes glaze over when they see a chart or hear anything that sounds like math — even Grade 9 math. Somehow, we must be failing to demonstrate the connection between analytics and success in fundraising and alumni engagement.
So in what fields is analytics really taking root? Well, every field. Including farmers’ fields.
Food production has been a focus of science and statistics for many decades. But today it’s not confined to experimental farms or the labs of agribusiness companies. Real, honest-to-goodness farmers are enthusiastic quants compared to most of us working in the nonprofit sector.
Jennifer Cunningham @jenlynham is Senior Director, Metrics and Marketing in the Office of Alumni Affairs at Cornell University. In a recent email to me and my “Score!” co-writer Peter Wylie she writes: “Just gave a talk today at the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association (NAADA) conference. Went on a hayride this afternoon with the group here at Penn State. The farmers here are using data like you wouldn’t believe. Guys have been farming for 30+ years and they’re going on and on about the importance of measuring input vs output … it’s so interesting to hear these old-school guys go on about the importance of it in their worlds. And yet, some people in our industry, raising billions, still don’t get it?!?!”
It’s a fair observation.
I have a lot of time for people who are not enamoured with analytics due to an unfamiliarity with working with numbers. They require explanations and justifications for using analytical methods. That’s fine. I myself didn’t see math as having much to do with my working life until I entered my mid-thirties, and sometimes I still think the right story beats numbers.
But like our friend Jennifer, I feel less sympathy for ignorance when it’s a deliberate choice. There’s a line where lack of interest in data equates to wilful illiteracy. Someday soon, being on the wrong side of that line is going to disqualify a person from working for important causes.