Book review: How to Measure Anything

The web seems awash these days with talk of “Big Data” ushering in new ways to look at the world and make strategic decisions. But for now, most of us don’t have dedicated data scientists, or Hadoop Clusters, or the financial resources to pour into these systems.

So how can we help our organizations make better decisions and design better programs with the systems and resources we have?

I recently read a book called How to Measure Anything by Douglas W. Hubbard. It’s not a new book, but I heard it mentioned at a Meetup I recently attended, and it sounded intriguing. It’s written for people who want to use data in their decision-making processes, but who lack actual training in statistics or data science.

It’s changed the way I look at the strategic role of data. Here are two simple, yet powerful ideas I picked up:

1. If it matters, you can measure it somehow.
A central premise of the book is that anything that is important enough to be part of your strategy can and should be measured in some way. Since many of us work with mission-driven organizations—or would like to—this can be a bit hard to swallow at first. After all, how do you quantify the story of child who has learned to read, or put a value on a life-saving medical treatment?

But does collecting and sharing those stories bring in donations? Does it nab you more volunteers? How does it relate to your primary metrics – people served, dollars-toward-cause, petition signatures, etc?

Consciously or not, you’ve attached some concept of value to each of those things. The point is not to say that these less-tangible things only matter because they affect the bottom line or some other metric-du-jour.

Rather, it’s to create a point of reference so that discussions about the risks and rewards of different strategies can be compared in some objective way.

Do you really need this much precision? Image by Flickr user stevegroom

Do you really need this much precision? Photo credit: Flickr user stevegroom

2. Be OK with ‘just enough’ data.
It’s easy to tie ourselves in knots on a quest for precision and completeness. We want to know exactly what the response rate will be on a new email campaign we’re testing, or exactly how many new volunteers signed up after a recruitment event. It’s tempting to scale up measurement and prediction efforts to try to reduce error.

More data means better decisions, right?

But improved accuracy has a cost. The first few measurements or estimates you make are easy to get and tell you a lot, while each additional bit of precision tells you less and costs more to acquire—more time, money, and attention.

For some critical decisions, you may actually need to be 95% certain that you’re right. Most of time, the cost of being wrong is not that high, and a lot less precision will do just fine.

The goal of measurement is not to eliminate uncertainty (which is impossible), but to reduce uncertainty to an acceptable level so a decision can be confidently made.

See if you can find a way to collect just a bit of data without investing much effort, and then ask yourself: “Is this enough information to make a decision?” The book dives into the math required for this kind of analysis, and breaks it down in a way that’s pretty friendly to statistics neophytes like me.

I’d recommend How to Measure Anything for anyone who’s interested in making better decisions based on data. Do you have a resource you’d recommend? Share it in the comments below.

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Book Review: An Introduction to Brandraising

“Brandraising” blends fundraising with marketing to outline a new way of thinking about a nonprofit’s communications with the public. Brandraising (a new book by Sarah Durham) is an easy to read, easy to use guide to bringing this new way of thinking to bear on the work of all types of public benefit organizations.

Brandraising (the concept) is building “a strong framework for communication” that rests securely on vision, mission and values — “the core elements that direct all aspects of the organization’s work.” The difference between brandraising and other guides to nonprofit communications is apparent from the start when Durham adds to the list of core elements four more concepts: objectives, audiences, positioning and personality.

Most planning sessions for nonprofits likely get as far as objectives, though considering that sort of detail when thinking about organizational communications may be rare. Rarer still, Durham thinks, is attention to the audiences to be reached, the position to be achieved, and the personality that best suits the organization’s goals. What adjectives describe the way the organization wants to be perceived? What is the big idea the organization wants to be known for? Who, exactly, needs to hear and understand the organization’s messages?

The book offers straightforward and practical exercises for working out the answers to questions like these. My personal favorite: Make a list on a whiteboard of all the other organizations that might be seen by the public as working with more or less the same goals as those that guide your work. Write your tagline or identity statement at the top just to the right of the list. And then make a check mark next to the name of any other organization that could comfortably use those same words to describe itself. Too many check marks? Your message is going to come across as blurred; key members of the public may all too easily confuse your work with that of other organizations that approach the goals differently.

Clarifying the key components of identity so they can be communicated accurately is half of the brandraising project. The other half—and maybe the harder half—is aligning communications efforts in every part of the work across all “the channels and tools through which audiences connect with the organization.” Too often, Durham suggests, organizations invest too little in developing a framework for communication that can be, and is, used by everyone consistently and comfortably.

Many people who work in nonprofits, Durham observes, are not engaged with the idea of marketing as an important contributor to organizational success. Brandraising serves well as an introduction, building on nonprofit examples and respecting the distinctiveness of nonprofits’ work.

You can order Brandraising from Amazon.com with this link; a small royalty will be paid that helps support this site.

For an advanced exploration of the idea, look at the 7th edition of Phillip Kotler’s classic (and expensive) Strategic Marketing for Non-Profit Organizations.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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