GuideStar Blog

Data Is Not Wisdom

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Photo by Ilkka Kärkkäinen on Unsplash

In 1854 John Snow correctly identified the cause of a cholera outbreak in London. It was a contaminated water pump. He then struggled, and eventually succeeded, in persuading the city authorities to take the handle off the pump. It was a historic achievement in the history of public health. The same year, England's august Cholera Inquiry Commission published a 629-page report on the causes of cholera. Their conclusion: the culprit was "bad air"—the noxious emissions that were associated with poor neighborhoods. They had 629 pages of data, and it lead them to a wrong conclusion.

If you are looking for more contemporary examples of data-driven wrongness, check out Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil. And if Big Data scares you a little bit, Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Now by Jaron Lanie will give you nightmares.

We live in an era in which data is revered. Nonprofits are urged to make their decisions based on data. But data does not guarantee good strategy. Data simply answers questions. And asking the right questions requires wisdom and curiosity.

I don't claim to possess much wisdom, although I am wiser than I used to be. But I do possess massive quantities of curiosity about why people are generous, how they choose to support one organization and not another, and how organizations can get out of their own way.

My beloved fellow nonprofiteers, please join me in seeking wisdom. Sometimes, our questions will be answered by quantifiable data. Sometimes, they will be answered by hunches that can be explored, challenged, and shared. And sometimes, asking a question is valuable for its own sake.

Paul JollyPaul Jolly is a fundraiser, a creativity coach, and a poet. His first book of poems, Why ice cream trucks play Christmas songs, was published last month.

Topics: Nonprofits and Data Nonprofit strategy