FYI Blog

Data Literacy is Key

I’ve been in Avalon leadership for more than 20 years, striving to grow personally and professionally as our company has grown and changed, and always looking for ways to improve. Right now, I’m reading a fascinating book: Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow by Don Clifton and Tom Rath.

I took the quiz the authors designed to identify one’s dominant leadership traits—and among the five, my love of analytics and data came through loud and clear! According to the test, I am organized but flexible, I assimilate information, and I make data-driven decisions. The authors write that

the “Arranger” strength I possess includes (among many other things) having fun discovering the recurring sequences of numbers in data, and using numerical data to justify action plans, propose solutions, budget requests, or responses to emerging trends.

Fits me like a glove. This is how I’m hard-wired to approach much of my life—considering and weighing the odds, the risks, and the best way forward. I know having these interests and skills greatly benefits anyone in our industry—so we “Arrangers” have to encourage and develop data literacy at all levels of our work.

Data skills for all

According to Blackbaud’s Steve McLaughlin, writing in npEngage recently:

Data literacy will become one of the most important skills for a nonprofit professional to possess…Can you read a chart? Can you explain what is happening based on data? Can you balance quantitative and qualitative information? Can you make data driven decisions? Build these skills and hire for them, too.

We embrace this kind of ongoing learning at Avalon, teaching data literacy as part of long-term staff and client development. We continuously foster a learning culture where questions can be asked about complicated data concepts, and because data learning isn’t finite, we give everyone baseline information and then keep teaching from there—constantly updating and improving.

Educating nonprofit boards

Just this morning I had an opportunity to address one of our clients’ boards, in the hot seat trying to explain what is happening with their program following a year in which they saw massive revenue growth and an outpouring of donor support after a major event for their organization. (For the record, I count five Avalon clients having this experience right now.)

With nonprofit board members, you’ve got exactly one hot second each time you see them, to help them exercise their fiduciary responsibility and approve spending and manage risk in an informed way. Our job is to educate them about how our recommendations are founded in hard data, and designed for maximum effectiveness and minimized risk.

This can be a seemingly endless task, so don’t forget the cardinal rule of advertising and fundraising that probably applies to most nonprofit boards: potential customers need to see an ad seven times (or more!) before they buy. So the key is educating frequently, repetitively, and with confidence about the data.

Tools that provide insights into nonprofit donors

Nonprofit staffers are often frustrated by not having the tools they need to really know their donors. But there are free, unique donor profile reports offered by co-ops like Apogee and Abacus—with demographic and behavioral information and industry benchmarks.

This kind of data work helps us round out our understanding of who our clients’ donors are and what motivates them.

Our biggest commitment to clients is that we not only give them dynamic creative and strategic thinking—we also offer sophisticated tools for assessing, evaluating, predicting, and decision making.

But what is the data telling us about their fundraising program?

Like everyone, way back when, we started with Excel and pivot tables to help us answer client questions about their data. Then we designed Merlin by Avalon®, our proprietary in-house reporting system, that has evolved to provide our clients with the most relevant views of their programs to answer key questions and spot issues as soon as they arise.

Now this powerful reporting system is a stand-alone Avalon service, giving nonprofits key, easily understood data available 24/7, including critical reports like:

• Key stats snapshot
• Annual review
• Year-over-year pacing
• Monthly trends report
• Cash report
• Detailed, campaign-level reporting (by package, segment, test, gift array, cash flow, and more)
• Acquisition list history
• Test log with recommendations
• Quarterly KP dashboard
• Sustainer dashboard

These views offer quick comparisons between years, or campaigns; help you check cash-flow trends to make sure you’re on track; month-to month views going back three years, which allows you to see where variations might be occurring; revenue by channel, and much, much more.

Email us at to learn more about how our Merlin dashboard can help get the most from your data, including Avalon’s in-depth analysis. Our expansion of Merlin represents part of our due diligence in improving data literacy (and the tools to support it) among our staff, clients, and nonprofit boards. Because it’s critical for the present and future of our industry.