How I Became Data Driven with a Change of Heart

25 May 2023

Jackie Hryncewich is a Senior Consultant at The Athena Advisors. Here she explores the transformation of her relationship with data and the importance of stats-knowledge to the fundraising profession.

Data plays a key role in the philanthropic sector and its importance is growing. Nonprofit professionals utilize data to measure impact, improve program performance, and build effective organizations. Fundraisers rely on data to guide their campaign strategies and measure the results of their development efforts. Philanthropists also use data to make decisions about where to invest their resources, to create the change they want to see in the world.

Regardless of your relationship to the philanthropic sector, chances are you want to better apply your analytical skills and make data-informed decisions. While some people have a natural knack for data analysis—for other people, it can be intimidating. A person’s ability to interpret and use data depends on the form of the data and the person’s relationship to that form. What do I mean? Data can take the form of numbers. And some people have a complicated history with numbers… and by “some people” I mean—me. I have a complicated history with numbers.

I never considered myself a “numbers person” by any means. From grade school through my undergraduate studies, I absolutely dreaded math class. I was stuck in a purgatory of repeated remedial courses, and it was pure torment. Basic arithmetic made me break out in a cold sweat and algebra gave me intense anxiety. If numbers were involved in a problem that needed to be solved, my reaction spanned from palpable discomfort to full-blown panic.

To cope with these negative reactions, I avoided math whenever possible, and I defined myself in opposition to numbers. I embraced prose and poetry. I focused on the metaphysical and the metaphorical. I labeled myself a “people person” who was concerned with emotions, storytelling, and the mystery of the human experience. I cared not about silly numbers! When I needed to process something, I put on a record and pulled out my acrylic paints. I was an artist not an analytical type.

I placed myself squarely in the qualitative camp and vehemently othered those “quants” who relied on mathematical formulas and computers to make meaning of the world. I prided myself on my creativity and intuitive decision-making style. My functionality was my capacity to empathize and relate. But in my efforts to define myself, I failed to recognize that I was framing the world in black and white, mutually exclusive categories. And I was limiting my personal identity in the process.

I pursued a career in the philanthropic sector because it aligned with my values. I wanted to help people and make a difference in the world. After all, philanthropy is about the love of humanity. How poetic! When I started my career as a fundraiser, I was forced to tolerate numbers. While I held tight to my truth that fundraising is about developing relationships with people, I was still responsible for measuring progress towards financial goals. I could not escape my duty to set benchmarks, track performance metrics, and make revenue projections. I started playing with Microsoft Excel and, to my surprise, I found a bit of delight in the power of this tool. Spreadsheets started to feel like a blank canvas calling for color.

But it wasn’t until graduate school that I had a total change of heart… and mind. I took an applied statistics course with a professor who possessed both an expertise in quantitative analysis and a passion for public service (shout out to Dr. Kelechi Uzochukwu). Her patience and accessible teaching-style allowed me to believe that I was capable of comprehending mathematical material. She opened my eyes to the importance of developing a competence in statistics. If you want to change public policy or create a more just and equitable society, it helps to have the stats to back up your case, or at least be able to question the stats presented to you. She completely reframed my thinking by demonstrating that numbers tell stories—and statistics is about relationships (just like philanthropy).

I never would have predicted that a statistics class would result in a radical shift in my personal identity. But it’s true! I am both artistic and analytical. I don’t have to be either one or the other. For me, the first step to becoming a more data-driven person was a change of heart. I was able to redefine myself by making friends with my fear of math… which was really just my fear of failure, fear of being wrong, fear of not being enough. Once I overcame the limiting beliefs about myself, I found a freedom in numbers, and I created a space to play with data.

My favorite space to play with data is here at The Athena Advisors. I am proud to announce that we are launching a new service called Athena Analytics, which helps nonprofit leaders analyze their donor database to identify prospects with the wealth capacity and philanthropic propensity to support their cause. On Wednesday, June 7 2023, I will be speaking at an online Food for Thought event hosted by The Athena Advisors on Tech in Fundraising. I will be presenting with Sarah Gammoh, the Founder and CEO of Charizone, which uses data to inspire responsible donors. We will discuss the role that data plays in philanthropy from the perspective of both fundraisers and funders, among other things. Hope you can join us!