The Right Data Leads to the Right Decisions

The purpose of big data is to provide enough data to allow an organization to trust the results of any analysis.  For large organizations, it can be a massive amount of data.  For small organizations, it can be a small amount of data.  When a small organization uses a large amount of data to determine the answer to a question, the answer can be misleading.  If so, the analysis becomes a distraction that wastes limited resources and leads to bad decisions.

If a small Christian school attempts to use a national figure to judge the success of its fundraising, it will probably be misleading.  If the national figures show that the average donor’s generosity increased 2% last year and a small school experienced a 1% increase, it is tempting to think the school’s fundraising was substandard.  However, local demographics, economics, social attitudes, and the effectiveness of other schools in the area may be inhibitors of success.  The fundraising team’s expertise, processes, and tools may be significantly different from the average school.  It could be equally misleading if the local results are better than the national average.

For small Christian schools, big data is best used to predict general trends.  It might also be helpful for setting long-term goals (10 years or more).

A widely reported statistic generates significant attention.  However, it is unlikely to be relevant for most schools.  When a school’s operations are limited to one geographic area or a narrow segment of society, it is the results for that area or segment that are meaningful.  It is probably more effective to determine the internal baseline and set an internal goal to improve performance over the next several years.

The data points that are important to your school are:

Business Model – What data tells you that your business model is developing the strength you want, at the speed you want, in the areas most important to your mission, students, and continued sustainability?

Forecast the Future – What data forecasts the future strength of your business model; preferences in your donor’s behavior and desires; changes in student demographics, skills, needs, and expectations; and evolutionary direction of your community?

Those are the data points that are needed to inform all of the critical decision you and your board must make.  They are the data points that shape the sustainability of your school and influence the perception of the relevance of your mission.  They are also the data points that determine which decisions are important rather than urgent.

When you have that data compiled, it will be too much data for your board to absorb.  As the principal, you need to present the board with a few key data points and trend lines (more than 5 is too many).  When appropriate, you can share the mass of data with individual board members or board committees who need a deeper understanding.

It is the board development committee’s responsibility to educate and train the board.  The board development committee needs to be educated about all of the key data points and trend lines, and how and why the data is relevant to various areas of your school.  The board development committee can then help ensure that board discussions are held at the right level (neither superficial nor unnecessarily detailed).

Many of the key data points and trends are unrelated to your school’s finances.  The financial figures primarily tell an organization about its health.  Understanding the key data points and trends will enable your board to make better decisions, increase the sustainability of your school, and help facilitate mission-related decisions rather than financially focused ones.

The financial data can tell you that your school is healthy and has been healthy for many years.  However, if fewer and fewer students are achieving outcomes the community believes are relevant, the school will be perceived as unsuccessful.  As a result, support and sustainability will decline.  Future financial results will reflect declining health but after the decline has already occurred.  Financial results rarely predict the future.

Next Step:

Determine which data points and trends are important to the long-term success of your mission and students

Focus only on the data points and trends that predict the strength of your business model, the sustainability of your school, and the success of your mission and students

Limit data reporting to the board to the data points and trends that are relevant to the issues that the board and its committee are dealing with currently

Boards have limited knowledge of the internal working of the schools they serve, the school sector in general, and the challenges faced by the school sector.  It is the school principal’s job to provide the board with the information it needs to make informed decisions.  In addition, it is the board development committee’s responsibility to ensure the board members have the education and training they need to effectively use the information provided by the principal.

Take It Further:

Review with your board the quality of the decisions it is making (learn how here and here) and determine what data will raise the effectiveness of your board’s decision-making


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