Once upon a time, someone told me that the US Census counts everyone based on their location on the census counting day. So if you happen to traveling to Ithaca, NY (even if you usually live in Madison, WI) for Census purposes, you should mark Ithaca on your form. By the law of, idk, transitive property, it should all sort out with roughly the same amount of people travelling proportional to the actual population.

Well, that was either a misinterpretation OR out of date info, because according to the official census materials,

And OMG, the list of special circumstances that the census designates is extensive. And fascinating. I could nerd out about this all day.

age old question

This week in the Jewish liturgical cycle, we begin the book of Numbers, which itself begins with a census. I’m not gonna lie, the text was getting kinda boring*, so I let my mind wander to the commentary on the bottom of my Torah book. Lo and behold, I learned that medieval rabbinic commentators had some of the same questions. Questions that I have been tackling for years!

*full recognition that what I’m about to write about is likely considered boring to most people

Rashi (on Exodus 30:16) notes an unexpected coincidence. The census given in Exodus had to have been conducted before the Tabernacle was built, since the half-shekels given for the count were used to make the structure’s sockets, while the census detailed here took place nearly seven months later, in Iyar. How is it possible, therefore, that both population totals, 603,550, were identical? Surely many died and others came of age during the intervening months!

Rashi responds that for the purpose of the census, all men counted were those that were twenty years old on the previous Rosh Hashanah; those who came of age during the year would not be counted until the next Rosh Hashanah.

Mizrachi [another rabbinic commentator] adds that this assumes that one of the many miracles that took place in the Wilderness was that no one died between the first census and second, since dead men were surely not counted.

Ramban [another rabbinic commentator] disagrees, contending that people were counted on the basis of their birthdays, not by their age on Rosh Hashanah. Furthermore, he contends that there was a basic difference between eligibility for the two censuses: In the first, the Levites were surely counted, but the Torah excludes them from the census of Numbers, so that Rashi’s reasoning cannot explain the identical counts. Ramban contends that there were indeed many who died between the tallies, but those who came of age made up not only for them but also for the Levites, who were not included in the second census. That the two totals were identical was a coincidence.

The Chumash: Torah, Haftoros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings; The Stone Edition pg 729-730
Whoop that was a lot of text. Here’s a puppy as a reward. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

also a modern problem

Reading this debate in the margin of my Torah sent happy-lightbulbs in my imagination.

It’s been a slog through the last few Torah portions and finally, this was a topic that holds tremendous meaning for me.

I mean, reading this discussion was almost VERBATIM the “requirements gathering” discussions that I have with colleagues/clients/community members every day.

One org that I support was struggling to accurately identify their major donors (for invitations to a highly anticipated event). Their first definition was anyone who contributed $1,000 or more. But what about people for whom “the check is in the mail” or their spouse donated or their employer contributed a matching gift? What about people who spaced out their gift by 14 months instead of 12 months? Donors give as they are able, and it’s our job to design flexible-enough queries to grab the right people into the right categories! Most non-profit facing databases have some built-in tools to deal with this, but they are not always easy to configure. Luckily, none of us have to face it alone. (Ask me about the solution-in-progress if you want to learn more!)

Another org that I support was trying to figure out how many members they have. The first working definition was anyone who was paying membership dues, but then we remembered that there are people (staff) who have complementary memberships. Also, what about people who made donations at some point during the year but then they lapsed for any number of reasons. What about people who quit their membership? Do we want to know the number of members AS OF TODAY or as of AT ANY POINT THIS YEAR? And what did we say we wanted last time we talked about this? Oy gevalt! (Ask me about the solution-in-progress if you want to learn more!)

multiple truths

The nice thing about the “Rashi” method is that you get roughly the same result every time you “count.” You basically go back to the moment in time and using that threshold, you count how many people met the criteria then. That number shouldn’t change unless something REALLY funky is going on! That’s roughly how the US Census works, too, although I think they also make some adjustments for margin of error.

The nice thing about the “Ramban” method is that you get an up-to-date number based on when you do the counting every time you ask the question. In some cases, this may just not be feasible (too much work to maintain) or it may be maddening to have the number change every few days/weeks/months. It’s certainly a valid premise for counting people!

The real problem comes up when these perfectly reasonable methods for counting people go unexamined or assumed in an organization, when different people come to naturally different conclusions about which premise is the Law of the Land. This can result in inviting the wrong people to an event, printing inaccurate information in an annual report, or misrepresenting your organization’s scale in either direction. Plus, it can lead to frustration, wasted energy, and lack of trust in the system or each other if you are asking the same question and getting wildly different results. Trust me… I’ve been there!

quick and dirty ways to count ppl

    There is absolutely no replacement for talking with each other about what “counting” means, WHY you are doing it, what you hope to achieve, and how often you will be doing so.
  2. Tally system
    Have you done step 1? STOP READING AND GO BACK TO STEP ONE!

    Ok, the simplest counting system is the finger-point-and-count or tally system. This is easy to do at in-person events, or by looking at a list of names and counting on your fingers, or by counting every single contact in your system (regardless of any criteria). There is nothing wrong with the tally system! But, eventually you might outgrow it.
  3. Criteria system
    The next level up is to come up with some criteria. This assumes that you have a list of people and only some of them should be counted for some reason. An easy example of the criteria system is “people who RSVPed/attended a specific event” or “people who live in Pennsylvania.” There are lots of spreadsheet/database tools that can help you with this! Some of my favorites are tables, filters, pivot tables, or =countif() functions. You could also use transactional data like “people who came to at least one webinar this year” under the criteria system but you might need to do some extra smooshing of data to make it work.

    *For the criteria system to work, the criteria has to live somewhere searchable (outside of one person’s head) or else you have to revert back to the tally system.
  4. Complex criteria system
    The “complex criteria” system assumes that you have more than one “tab” or “table” of data. For example, you have people, households, donations, event attendees, and volunteer responsibilities all stored in the same spreadsheet or database system. If you are trying to “count” people (and you are not counting absolutely everyone because of course some people are in active/out of date/underage/deceased or any other reason!), you might need criteria that draw on multiple tables. If your database is really advanced, you might be able to “filter up” some of these metrics and simply use the “Criteria System” (level 3) however, sometimes that’s just not possible or advisable! Never fear, there are a variety of ways to do this with spreadsheets, automation, database tools, or code.

    In fact, I read two PHENOM!!! blog posts this week that describe complex criteria for counting people / measuring engagement that I want to shoutout!
    – Contact Engagement Score (Net Promoter Score) by Terry Cole
    – A Practitioner’s Guide for Measuring Movements by Brittany Bennett

so what?

As we read in the Torah, people-counting is an essential, sacred duty of any community or institution. Heck, even families do it, often scrawled in the front flap of a generations-deep religious text. It’s a large part of being able to declare ourselves a “we” or an “us.” And yet, it’s something that many of us really struggle with… due to a host of legitimate issues like…

  • duplicate contacts!!! or duplicate work/personal emails ~yikes~
  • contact info scattered across google forms / no “single source of truth” (forget what i said above about multiple truths)
  • inconsistent criteria about what we are counting
  • de-prioritization of data entry/updates
  • wonky/glitchy/unfriendly tech systems that make us want to avoid data questions all together
  • shame / impostor syndrome

Does any of this sound familiar? If no, pls write a guest post! If yes, you’re in good company and I have hope! How you feel is absolutely, 100% valid. And even given all of the obstacles we’ve faced, I’ve seen SO MANY OF US turn the ship around and start getting good data *out* of our systems while transforming our culture/affect/behavior. Change is possible, right?

I’d LOVE to hear from you in the comments. Here are some reflection questions for further discussion!

When it comes to counting people, are you #TeamRashi or #TeamRamban?

What are you currently struggling to measure in your changemaking efforts?

Drop me a line and let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it together!

One thought on “people counting

  1. we sang this song on repeat last year https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/sis/2020census/2020-resources/pre-k/everyone-counts-song.html

    On Tue, May 11, 2021 at 8:18 PM The Data are Alright wrote:

    > Samantha Shain posted: ” Once upon a time, someone told me that the US > Census counts everyone based on their location on the census counting day. > So if you happen to traveling to Ithaca, NY (even if you usually live in > Madison, WI) for Census purposes, you should mark Ithaca on” >

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