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 In Articles, DataBlog, How To, Link, Projects, Services, Uncategorized

When adults learn to play the piano, they want to start pounding the ivories like Elton John. When that doesn’t happen right away, frustration sets in and their progress grinds to a halt. It’s easy to forget that you need to learn “Mary Had a Little Lamb” before you tackle Beethoven’s Fifth.

Learning to use data is like learning any new skill:
you don’t look at the masters and think you can emulate them right away.

There’s nothing wrong with starting at square one!

We’ve made it very easy for you get your PhD in Data Literacy. Keep this blog post handy to make your own data education plan.

Ready to go to data school? Let’s dive in.


Getting your foot in the door with data is just a Google search away. You can get online in an instant to get a feel for the basics from newspapers, magazines and blog posts. Try searching for “data-friendly non-profit,” “non-profit data management,” “non-profit analytics,” and “non-profit data viz.”

You’ll find posts on Excel, analytics-driven fundraising strategies, and DIY reporting and data visualization.

Fill up your data school bag with basic supplies by checking out the websites of these organizations:

Don’t worry if you’re not up on statistics language or analytics in a day.

The goal is to familiarize yourself with the lingo, feel out the scope of the industry, and get a sense of what’s possible for your organization.

Crib note: At the Kindergarten stage, you should also bone up on your basic Excel features, like lookup formulas, macros and pivot tables.

Elementary School

You’re getting the basics of data down, so now it’s time to start playing with others.

Although it may surprise you to learn that data meet-ups exist, people indeed get together to discuss big data analytics, data mining and statistics.

You can also attend webinars to start your Data 101 education.  For example, in 2011, NTEN ran a series of webinars covering the basics, with “When Data is Everywhere, Where Do You Start?” “Transforming Data into Knowledge,” and “Data Visualization: Tools and Tactics,” and these webinars are still available.

And why not get your MOOC on? For example, Coursera has loads of massive open online courses on data, from such big guns as John Hopkins University, Duke University and Columbia University—all free.

Crib note: At the Elementary stage, you can start looking into these tools:

  • SPSS (for program evaluation and predictive fundraising analytics)
  • R (a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics)

High School

You’ve got the data lingo down and you’ve started learning the basics. The time has come to graduate and start incorporating data into your work.

Remember all those high school presentations you were forced to give back in the day?  Well, your job is now to learn to make a great presentation to your boss, your team or your board to make the case for data.

To craft your argument, you can use the first blog post in this series as a starting point, but here are other sources to help you make your case:

These references should also be on your desk for go-to reading, so there’s no harm in stockpiling them now.

Crib note: Just keep in mind that your goal shouldn’t be to give your board members and directors a course on data, as you’re still in high school.

You want to make a simple and effective argument about why data will help drive your mission.


Once you’ve impressed everyone about the wonders of data, you can now press ahead to make data a priority for your staff meetings and strategic plan.

This is the university stage, where you start getting into the nitty gritty about:

  • Collecting your data
  • Measuring your performance
  • Determining your impact

The benefit of tapping into the “collegial” mindset is to figure out the areas of focus for your data efforts.

For example, you may have a good handle on your financial data but have very little in the way of social media or marketing data.

As a group, you can hash out which area makes most sense for you.

Crib note: The aim is now to collectively decide how you’ll turn data into knowledge.


To become a master, you must devise your own hypotheses and test your assumptions.

Again, you’ll need some key references for case studies and examples to inform and inspire you.

Want a boost in social?

Read Measuring the Networked Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine or Mobile for Good by Heather Mansfield.

Need to measure your marketing?

Your best bets are The Nonprofit Marketing Guide and Content Marketing for Nonprofits, both by Kivi Leroux Miller.

Eager to delve into your web strategy?

Content Strategy by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach and The Digital Crown by Ahava Leibtag provide all you need to know to measure these projects.

Crib note: At this point, you’ll be getting your hands dirty with data strategy, which you’ll need before you move on to your doctorate.


The good news about our data school is that you don’t have to spend your life on a thesis to get graduate-level results.

For your data literacy doctorate, you’ll start playing with ways to present data effectively. And this is where the fun really begins.

Some good data-viz resources to get you started are:

And you’ll need some trusty tools like jQuery Visualize and Google Charts, both of which are free.

Now you should have enough knowledge from your tests and projects to analyze, visualize, and make decisions.

Crib note: Even the best doctoral students have supervisors. If you feel like you need some upper-level faculty power, look into hiring a consultant for training and analysis.


You’ve made it through your data education process, run through a pilot project, and seen how essential data is to making decisions.

Good post-docs know that education never ends, and you must constantly refine your approach.

The final stage is to repeat your experiments, learn from them, and keep the data flowing and growing.

Final takeaway

Think of becoming data literate as a new educational experience. You don’t have to be overwhelmed with the complexity. Instead, you can learn bit by bit until you have a handle on one area before you move to the next.

[dismissable_alert class=”alert-info” ]Want more information about how data can help? You can always call on a solid teacher to help you out.  Datassist is consistently providing real-world answers to unique data-based questions, and turns data into stories and pictures people talk about.

…So take time right now to:

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