Peter Stanford: Charities should not obsess over data

Sometimes intuition is just as important as hard facts when setting a charity's direction

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

As a 13-year-old boy, I was one of those nerdy types who liked to listen to the Top 20 rundown. Unlike cooler contemporaries, whose musical taste was more eclectic and individual, unaffected by what was selling well with others, I was a dedicated follower of musical fashion and there was nothing at the time I liked better than a chart to tell me what to think and like.

In theory I have grown out of it, but confronted recently with not one but two charts of leading charities – one by the marketing data company Fastmap on those with the best "potential" to garner legacies, the other by Harris Interactive on the most recognisable brands – I found myself unthinkingly cutting and pasting them into a document to circulate around my fellow trustees to inform our discussions.

And then my hand paused on the send button. There is, of course, something hugely satisfying in a chart. As a writer of books, I find myself addicted to Amazon’s chart when I have a new title out. I click away every few hours around publication date to see if I’m up or down, who I’m besting and who is besting me. I know, it’s a pretty sad way to spend my time, but I hope by sharing it with you I can partially redeem myself as self-knowing and therefore not entirely pitiful.

Data, of course, is useful. You’d have to be an idiot to argue otherwise. But I think we have to treat it with caution, especially around a trustees’ table, for a number of reasons. First, it tends to tell you the bloomin’ obvious. If you had asked me before I spotted the aforementioned charts which charities would do best in each category, I would have said those involved in animal protection, cancer and children’s welfare. As proved to be the case.

You might, of course, respond that I know that only because I have seen similar charts before, probably multiple times over the decades, and that in matters such as legacies nothing much changes. But what assistance do such charts really give us? As one involved in causes such as prison reform, they tend to make me feel a bit defeated by the losing battle to win round public attention and public approval. And that isn’t much use when brought to a trustees’ meeting.

Or I get into a frenzy about how we must start doing marketing and legacies better. Again, both are valuable areas for any charity to engage in, but as part of an integrated, long-term plan, rather than just to see our name in lights on a chart. Do people really leave legacies to organisations because a lot of other people are leaving legacies to them?

Most of all, though, I’d like to make a plea that our consumption of data, which risks becoming the third sector’s own version of the national obesity crisis, be tempered by a renewal in the collective appetite among trustees for something older and more enduring, namely intuition and common sense. What data tells us is what people have been doing, and what they are doing now, give or take the time lapse required to translate surveys into reports into press releases. What they cannot tell us is what people will do in the future, and one role of the trustee is to try to anticipate the future and offer an intuitive and common-sense rationale as to what strategic direction his or her charity needs to go in.

We live in empirical times. Nothing can have a value unless backed up by facts, proofs and data. Yet I wonder when Elizabeth Fry began her crusade to reform our prisons in the 19th century, or Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder in the 20th century turned their individual and joint attention to adult social care, whether they based their crusades on data – Leonard Cheshire Disability has dropped by 48 places in the latest brand recognition charts to 141st – or on intuition and what they had eyes to see. Ditto, Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement, which does well in the legacy potential charts.

It is not that I am decrying data. It has many uses and should be one of the oracles considered at all times, but life is rarely something that can be contained, filtered and sorted by charts. As trustees of charities whose purpose is to improve lives, we should bear this in mind and put more energy into creative thinking alongside the necessary calibration.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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