The Difference Between Information And Intelligence
We’re all swimming in an ocean of information. The data produced by our advocacy efforts are already voluminous enough without also considering the data from other nonprofits, academic researchers, the government, etc. The first challenge for advocates is to determine which data are meaningful and which are useless. The second challenge is turning all of that raw data into “actionable intelligence” that we can use to launch, evaluate, and improve our campaigns.
Organizing and analyzing data to help make key decisions is critical for all nonprofit organizations. The initial step is to determine measurable (i.e., quantifiable) goals for each of your major programs and campaigns, as well as your overall organization. I’ve written about this topic before, and I cannot overstate the importance of having clear goals. Without them, there is no actionable intelligence, because our objectives and the metrics that we use to evaluate them are the filter through which we analyze and act on the information available to us. Once we’ve set clear goals, we’re then in a position to discern between relevant, useful data and extraneous information.
For instance, let’s say your mission is to end euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats in your county. One of your key objectives might be to apply Fibonacci’s sequence to feral cat sterilizations, aiming to spay/neuter at least 70% of the feral and free-roaming cats in your county. With this clearly stated goal, it quickly becomes evident what information is most useful to help you evaluate your progress: the number of feral cats and colonies in the community; how many are currently sterilized; the “run rate” of spay/neuter surgeries, etc. Of course, you may have to collect this data yourself, and you also need a method of systematically analyzing all of the information to produce “intelligence.” But without the clear goal, you might find yourself analyzing the wrong data and/or coming to the wrong conclusion.
This concept is often referred to as “business intelligence” because its genesis was in the corporate world, but the principles apply to nonprofit organizations as well. As one expert describes it: “Business intelligence is really all about trying to help companies and organizations understand the data and the information they have, and to make better decisions with it.” There is a wide array of tools available to facilitate the generation of actionable intelligence, ranging from very basic to very complex. Whether it’s a simple spreadsheet to track your key data on a weekly basis or a full-fledged online analytical processing (OLAP) system, the goal is to turn raw data into something meaningful that you can use for making decisions.
A simple example is the spreadsheet that Faunalytics uses to track key usage data for our websites. Every month, we compile data on important metrics such as new subscribers, site visitors, time spent on the site, pages visited, etc. We use this information to determine whether or not we’re reaching our stated goals for engaging our constituents and providing relevant and valuable content. Our spreadsheet is a simple but useful tool for measuring our progress against our web-related goals. However, there’s no rule that says you need to keep it simple – if you have a data geek on staff or as a reliable volunteer, you can go nuts with spreadsheets. To see what this might look like, check out this sample “dashboard” spreadsheet from the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN).
Spreadsheets are only the beginning, of course, and the more sophisticated software packages sit on top of your existing databases and allow you to manipulate and analyze the underlying multidimensional data. The most expensive and complicated of these packages will likely require having an IT staff. For larger organizations and those with the requisite financial resources, investing in a robust “performance management system” is certainly worthwhile. The rest of us may have to be satisfied with spreadsheets, although fortunately there are also some open source options for business intelligence software.
Whatever tool you use, your organization should be looking beyond mere information and seeking actionable intelligence to guide your decisions.