Welcome to Heart, Soul and Data. This is a podcast about the art of science, the heart of data, and the soul of transformation. It is dedicated to amplifying the impacts of nonprofits, social enterprises, and the force of good everywhere through the power of analytics.
I’ll be your host. My name is Alexandra Mannerings. I come to nonprofit analytics in a rather round-about way. Instead of a data scientist, I think of myself as a scientist who works with data. My training is in epidemiology and public health. I spent my PhD chasing fruit bats across Ghana and talking to the people who depended on them for food and money. I learned first-hand how to identify, ask and answer the most impactful questions with limited resources and complex on-the-ground realities. Over the last decade, I’ve parlayed my research and scientific experience to help hospitals, health systems, educational nonprofits and more develop the technical tools and the cultural mindset to turn data into actionable insights. Most recently I founded a data services and analytic education company devoted entirely to supporting nonprofits on their analytic journey.
So why data? Why should we, with as little free time and strapped resources as we nonprofits already have, expand our work to include analytics?
It’s a great question. To answer it, I want to take you back to London, in 1854. It’s a time that would feel familiar to us right now, because the city was gripped by a massive outbreak. The scourge London faced wasn’t a coronavirus, but a bacterium called vibrio cholerae – the cause of cholera.
As industrialization brought more and more people to London, infectious diseases ran rampant. And cholera was one of the worst, killing 100,000s in the 19th century. To combat these challenges, the city formed a new sanitation commission tasked with finding ways of reducing these deaths.
But how to do that? The leading theory of the time was that miasmas, or bad air, caused diseases like cholera. And before you chortle knowingly at this ridiculous idea, it made perfect sense in a world that knew nothing of bacteria. The hardest hit by cholera were the poorest and most overcrowded neighborhoods, which reeked from open sewage. Wealthy boroughs of London, lined with trees and open to the fresh air, were spared both the horrendous smells and the high rates of cholera deaths. If such smells accompanied death from disease, it was a small step to a causal connection.
We still do this today. We readily accept ideas and explanations that just make sense, even when or perhaps especially when we mean well and the action feels like the right thing to do. Telling our children not to have sex or do drugs or smoke will keep them from doing those things, right? Fires in the Rocky Mountains are dangerous, so we should put them out as quickly as possible, obviously. Politicians all the time talk of “common sense policies” – as in, it’s so obvious this policy will work, what other evidence do you need?
But here’s the problem – abstinence and drug-free campaigns have been shown to actually have the opposite effect. Quashing the little fires in my home state of Colorado, among other things, has actually built up dry underbrush that feeds massive fires we can’t control. And in London, the miasma theory – an idea that was so convincing the brilliant Florence Nightingale firmly supported it – that theory of bad air led the newly appointed head of the board of Health to order all the stinking open sewage to be diverted out of the city – and straight into the Thames River.
Here’s the tragic, complicated reality – cholera isn’t caused by smells, it’s most commonly caused when a person consumes water or food contaminated by feces from another person infected with cholera. And the Thames provided many Londoners with their water. The same river now even more contaminated with infectious sewage.
Fortunately, there was a physician, Dr. John Snow, who was skeptical of the miasma theory. And when the outbreak of 1854 happened in SoHo, London, he headed straight into the heart of it, determined to find the data to show what really caused cholera.
Going door to door with an assistant, he mapped every cholera death in the neighborhood. His Ghost Map, as it is often called now, revealed a striking pattern – that the deaths clustered around a single water pump on Broad Street. He convinced the borough leaders to remove the handle of the pump, and the outbreak ended.
Dr. Snow didn’t stop there. He went on to show that recipients of water from providers that sourced their water downstream of London were far more likely to fall ill with cholera than those receiving water upstream from London. His critical data helped transform how the ministers of health and sanitation in London managed sewage and water – and doubtless saved tens of thousands of lives.
And this is the whole point of the story. When we rely purely on common sense, on what feels right, we can find ourselves going horribly astray. As nonprofits and social enterprises, we have a responsibility to be the best stewards of our resources. We owe it to those we serve to ensure that we are constantly seeking ways of increasing just how much impact we can have. And a deep commitment to data and analytics is a critical part of achieving that. If Dr. Snow hadn’t be able to use on-the-ground data to test the prevailing ideas and presumptions of his peers, how many thousands more would have fallen ill? How do we know our programs do what we say they do, that our fundraising campaigns achieve the funding for our mission, that our hiring practices actually reflect our intentions, that whatever you are striving to do inside your organization – how do we know they’re going the directions we want them unless we have data? How do you know that you aren’t – even accidentally – just diverting more cholera into people’s drinking water?
This podcast is named what it is because data aren’t just the cold, heartless numbers we so often make them out to be. They can serve as the voice of the voiceless. High quality data can ensure everyone is equally represented – not just the loud or powerful. And data aren’t just for the fundraising team. Yes, the success of your latest mailer campaign is important – but it’s not the whole analytic story. Not by a long shot! Impactful metrics can help everywhere from volunteer management and HR to program evaluation and strategic planning – and everywhere in-between.
Data-driven decision making also isn’t about abandoning your values, your passions, your organization’s mission. It’s about lighting the brightest possible lamp to find your way through the darkness of the unknown. Following analytic insights isn’t about handing over your authority to the machines, but rather about putting science into service to achieve what you most believe in – and achieving it faster and more effectively.
Becoming a true learning organization driven by sustainable analytics isn’t just for Silicon Valley, the giant foundations, and the 1%. No matter the size of your nonprofit, or if you’re a social enterprise of one, you can leverage the tools and data you do have to put analytics to work for you. It’s okay if you don’t know how yet – that’s why we’re launching this podcast.
Here, through interviews with experts and your peers, we will explore the many paths up the mountain. I am deeply honored to be with you along this journey. I’d love to connect with you on LinkedIn – I’m the only Alexandra Mannerings there!
With that, I hope to catch you on our next episode, an interview with an executive director who’s already walking this path with courage and determination. Until then, be well!
Learn more about my company, Merakinos
Heart, Soul & Data is supported by my enterprise, Merakinos, a company devoted to the same goal as this podcast: amplifying the impact of the small and mighty community organizations all around us.
Merakinos offers strategic consulting, analytic project work, data training, and more to help nonprofits get started with and grow their analytic capabilities.