Through my job and my volunteer work, and because I’m a huge nerd, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with dozens of data experts at nonprofits, social movement organizations and philanthropic foundations.  As luck would have it, even organizations with seemingly limitless resources struggle with contact lists, automation, duplicates, selecting the right platforms, training, adoption, etc, you name it!

In this post:  uncensored & unsolicited advice about why changemakers should take data seriously ASAP – so that we can reach the right people at the right time, save money and frustration, and WIN!

alright-hippies-show-me-the-money-memePutting our money where our mouth is

Good data are crucial for movements to grow.  Have you ever tried to raise money without a good prospect list?  Turnout volunteers without a trusty RSVP system?  Tough, isn’t it?  We need to truly dedicate resources to administration if we are going to grow and win.  I don’t mean that we should take away from organizing (!!) false binary alert (!!) but rather that the two should go hand in hand.

Early and often


If you are struggling with data in your campaign, organization, or movement — you are not alone!  (haha, this sounds like the beginning of a pharmaceutical commercial – but no, I don’t have a pill to sell you).  Every company in the world, every nonprofit, and from what I can tell, foundations, too, are facing data challenges!

You might think that you’re the only one because no one is talking about this.  Let’s actually dig into that a little bit more.  Why aren’t data problems being discussed?  Do we find them shameful? Un-important?  Intimidating? Someone else’s responsibility?  Hopeless?

Here’s my challenge to those 5 assumptions:

  • Data problems are often problems that we all share.
  • Solving them is crucial if we want to win.
  • Data become intimidating when Impostor Syndrome takes over.  Or tedium ;P
  • Good data is everyone’s responsibility.
  • If we believe political and environmental transformation is possible (and we do!), then I guarantee we can tackle a messy database.

Out of the shadows

157I think we need to bring admin work into the center (once again, not to the exclusion of base building!).  Feminist movements over the years have made an incredibly compelling argument about what happens when work becomes invisible.  The people doing that work become precarious, expendable.  The rest of the people never learn.  This dynamic leads to cycles of dependency, entitlement, resentment, burnout and injustice.

This might sound like I’m asking for a pat on the back for us data nerds; trust me, I’m not!  I think there is strategic value in lifting up administrative work for our movements.  Not only can we mitigate burnout, increase a sense of agency and supercharge our organizing, but we can also AVOID bad data, sloppy organizing, disempowerment, isolation and … that dreaded Impostor Syndrome.

Leading by example

So what does this look like in practice?  Here are 5 do-able recommendations.

  • Clean as you go:  “Let’s all stay after the phone-a-thon and do 15 minutes of data entry so that we can learn more about our volunteers and keep our database up to date!”
  • Learn, learn, learn:  Budget “capacity building funds” for staff and volunteers to skill-up in the data department (I recommend this online course for learning Excel)
  • Document everything!  Create user-friendly guides in a friendly tone and searchable format to help newbies learn the ropes of your data systems (I am exploring Google Sites for this purpose!)
  • Invite participation: “I’m going to pull the lists on Thursday night and I’m looking for 2 volunteers to join me!”
  • Celebrate progress:  This year, my org sent out our Annual Report a whopping 5 months earlier than last year!  That’s a testament to building a better framework and system.  If you’ve made great strides in your data management, give a shout-out to the folks who worked on it (often behind the scenes) and celebrate the victory.

The good, the bad and the ugly

technology-1There are data tools out there that are complicated, expensive, impractical and down-right creepy.  Movements shouldn’t be investing time and $$ in those!  In many cases, we should even be organizing against them.

Plus, there are consultants out there looking to make a buck on organizations  that are desperate for database and fundraising support.  We need to reject those false solutions and create tools and processes that work for us, which is totally possible!  (By the way, there are also consultants who are in it for the right reasons, and we should support them when we need extra help!)

At the end of the day, our data are OUR responsibility. The good news is that data skills are LEARN-ABLE  – in fact, no one comes into this world knowing how to de-dupe, just like no one comes into social movements knowing how to make an “organizing ask.”  If we treat data problems as solve-able, we can empower ourselves and our communities to truly embrace systems and use them to fuel hard-hitting campaigns.

Keeping our eyes on the prize

ALL OF THIS BEING SAID, “good data” is a means to an end, not an end itself.

What I’m talking about here is not an exercise in having a hypothetically perfect database, but rather, healthy systems for keeping track of AND keeping up with – dozens or thousands or MILLIONS of people who are united in fighting for justice and dignity for people, communities, and ecosystems.

This is a very practical and pragmatic proposal.

We can’t win without paying serious attention to good data.  So now, let’s get to work!

3 thoughts on “taking data seriously

  1. Hey Samantha — I love this email list and all of your blog posts, thank you for all the work and heart you put into it.

    I am writing from the Alliance for Fair Food in Immokalee (ally to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers) because we are currently hiring for a co-coordinator and administrator (someone who would do part time organizing and part time admin, including bookkeeping). We are looking for candidates with an eye to numbers and data for this position and I thought you might know of forums where we can share the job announcement and/or names of individuals who would be good candidates. We are looking for someone who speaks Spanish, ideally, is willing and excited about moving to Immokalee, and can make a 3 year commitment.

    While I am at it, we are also hiring a student organizer with similar characteristics.

    Looking forward to any ideas you might have! Keep up the excellent content.


    On Wed, May 30, 2018 at 15:29 The Data are Alright wrote:

    > Samantha Shain posted: “Through my job and my volunteer work, and because > I’m a huge nerd, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with dozens of data > experts at nonprofits, social movement organizations and philanthropic > foundations. As luck would have it, even organizations with see” >

    1. Hi Pati – I’m so sorry I didn’t see this earlier! I am deeply in awe of y’alls work and have always so admired the CIW. I even attended a Wendy’s march in Ohio back in 2014. That sounds like an amazing position and yet difficult to find someone with the right combination of skills. I have forwarded the job posting to to some folks in my network, but I don’t have a specific person in mind who is looking to relocate.

      Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if any other data needs come up! I’m just an email away –

      Warmly, Sam

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