Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Free fundraising report from GuideStar

GuideStar has just published a report, "The Fundraising Methods that Worked Best in 2010" available as a free download here. It's a report of a survey (based on a convenience sample) of 1,616 US organizations. Here's a screenshot of the chart outlining the methods repondents reported using:

Respondents said that fundraising through online giving, major gifts and special events increased for those organizations using those techniques. The report, correctly, cautions that special events can be, well, variable in the amounts of money they raise.

The report recommends diversifying fundraising methods, particularly for organizations that rely on government funding. A few months ago, I described an online resource, Foundation Source Access, in a post. It's worth revisiting the site now.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fascinating presentation from Web Science 11 conference via James Fallows

I'm a huge fan of James Fallows' writing and blog on generally, and today's post is particularly noteworthy: it's a link to a presentation Mark Bernstein made last week at the Web Science '11 conference. Remember surfing? And web rings? If you're like me, you have a bunch of web sites you check regularly, and maybe a few RSS feeds for blogs, and do precious little web surfing.

Bernstein's point is that small web sites, repositories for small and idiosyncratic bits of knowledge, are at risk if we all keep looking at only bigger sites. Read Fallows' post and click through the slideshow he provides. Click over to Bernstein's site and read his blog on books and reading. And then link to both of them. And to me!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Flight data visualizations

Check out this video by Aaron Koblin of 24 hours worth of flights across and into the continental United States:
It's something to think about next time you book a flight. More Youtube flight data visualizations and Aaron Koblin's stills here. Click through and look at the different patterns models, manufacturers, and altitudes make.

Thanks to Peter at the Grownyc booth at the Brooklyn Heights Farmers Market for telling me about this.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sometimes all you have to do is count

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal posted a simple illustration this week to remind us that, well, a picture can tell a story pretty effectively. If you don't know it, Byliner is a new-ish web site that publishes original long-form nonfiction (the first was Jon Krakauer's take-down of Greg Mortenson) and aggregates long articles published elsewhere. It's a great site, though spending time on it can be something of a distraction. To put it mildly.

Madrigal counted (or had an intern count) the number of pages of stories Byliner lists, and the number from each source, and made a simple and compelling pie chart. Take a look. Byliner's favorite publications (and possibly its editors' biases) jump out at you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Overcoming cognitive bias

I haven't yet written much about cognitive biases - anchoring, availability, framing, the sunk cost fallacy, to name just a few. (They do come up in some of the books I've reviewed.) Harvard Business Review has just published an article that helps managers identify cognitive biases in others -- like the people the work with, or the people who work for them. The article, "The Big Idea: Before you Make that Big Decision . . . " by Daniel Kahneman (one of the originators of the idea of cognitive bias), Dan Lovallo, and Olivier Sibony is free on the Harvard Business Review website through July 4.

In it, the authors set out a checklist to help managers reviewing the work of others avoid getting trapped by someone else's cognitive bias. The checklist is easy to reproduce, and I've set it out below. The article's examples, not surprisingly, are from the corporate world, but I have no trouble thinking of examples from my experience in government and non-profits. The checklist is a good shorthand for critical thinkers to keep in mind, but the article explaining it is extremely helpful.

Here's the checklist, from the article "The Big Idea: Before you Make that Big Decision . . . " by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo, and Olivier Sibony:
A. Preliminary questions to ask yourself:
1. Is there any reason to suspect errors driven by self-interest in the recommendation?
2. Have the people making the recommendation fallen in love with it?
3. Were there dissenting opinions within the recommending team?

B. Questions to ask the recommenders:
1. Could their read of the situation be over-influenced by salient analogies?
2. Have they considered all the credible alternatives?
3. If they had to make this decision again in a year, what information would they want? Can they get any of it now?
4. Where did their numbers come from?
5. Are the team's assumptions justified, or are they amplified by a halo effect, a tendency to see a story as simpler than it really is?
6. Are the people making a recommendation doing it because they're attached to past decisions?

C. Questions to ask about the proposal
1. Is the base case overly optimistic?
2. Is the worst case bad enough?
3. Is the recommendation overly cautious?

Some of the considerations here are reminiscent of ideas raised in How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard. Interested readers can click on the link to learn more about that fascinating and complex book.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Context matters

Two interesting reports made available in the last couple of days illustrate, once again, the importance of context. In one, the research service The Analyst's Accounting Observer's 2010 S & P 500 Executive Compensation Report, researchers examine the relationship between officer pay and various performance indicators. The most important finding? Some pay packages have become very large, large enough to show up even against such factors as a firm's net income, market capitalization, or contributions to an entire firm's pension plans. Gretchen Morgensen describes the findings in some detail in yesterday's New York Times. A condensed version of the report is available for free here.

This morning, news reports say that the Giving USA Foundation reports that charitable giving  by US corporation, individuals, and foundations increased last year by 3.8%. This is not a large percentage increase (though the increment in absolute terms is pretty big) and not as big as the numbers in the The Analyst's Accounting Observer suggests it might be. I'm relying on news reports for the content of Giving USA's report; a free download of the Executive Summary is available here but I've so far been unable to open it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"A Singular Woman", by Janny Scott

When I started reading "A Singular Woman," Janny Scott's fascinating new biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, Barack Obama's mother, I didn't expect to be blogging about it. But Ann Dunham was an anthropologist with a Ph.D. who spent most of her professional life working on microfinance, cottage industries, and other development programs helping poor rural folk in Indonesia.

And anthropologists collect and analyze data. Scott describes one questionnaire as "novella-length;" Dunham was trying to find out how rural farmers used banks. But she didn't make any assumptions. "'Has the Respondent ever been inside a bank before?' one question asked. 'If not, why not?'" If the answer was that the respondent was afraid of banks, the interviewer was to pursue that angle too.

Dunham didn't collect data just for the sake of having it, she used it. With bankers, she was "professional, methodical, and not the least bit eccentric." But with villagers, with whom she could speak in Indonesian, she was empathetic and genuinely curious. Her example continues to be one that those of us who provide numbers should remember. "To her young research assistants, [Dunham] emphasized accuracy, rigor, patience, fairness, and not judging by appearances. 'Don't conclude before you understand,' [one of them] recalled Ann saying. 'After you understand, don't judge.'"

Dunham, who was born in 1942, lived a complicated life that was cut short much too young. She married, first, an African and second, an Indonesian. She traveled far from her children for a large part of the time they were growing up. She was curious and open to other cultures, and she made the most of her jobs and life abroad. Ann Dunham also sounds like a woman with a wonderful sense of humor whose friends loved her dearly. Scott does a great job showing how Dunham's parents and upbringing shaped her, and suggests how she in turn shaped her oldest child. Even (or especially!) if you are not interested in numbers, this is a book worth reading.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Miles to go

The New York Times reports this morning about high school graduation rates and college readiness of New York's graduates. New York City spun the data as a positive: high school graduation rates are increasing. The New York State Education Department offered a caution, however: fewer than half of the students who graduated are ready for college.

And by "ready for college" NYSED has a clear definition: students need a score of 75 or better on the English Regents exam, and a score of 80 or better on the Math Regents. Statewide, 36.7% of the cohort entering high school in 2006 met that standard, though 73.4% graduated in four years. In New York City, 21.4% of the cohort met the college-ready standard, though 61% graduated. (All data are for 2010 graduates.)

NYSED and Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the Board of Regents, appear to be using data in the way they should be used: to figure out what's happening and to seek changes in practice that lead to improvements. School data should be public and from all appearances NYSED is not using the data punitively (though there could be lots I don't know here). I especially liked Ms. Tisch's Times quote: “This is talking about useful truths. We are all aware that this is very challenging, and that the tenacity of the achievement gap is undeniable. But the only way to correct the problem is to find something that allows you to state clearly where you are, and that’s what this is.”

The New York State Education Department press release and data are here.
The New York City data are here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Keeping an eye on the big picture

I tuned into the Yankees-Indians game on Saturday at the bottom of the 7th inning, and watched what looked like a smooth cruise to a 4-0 win for the Yanks. I did sort of idly wonder, as I watched each new batter's stats, whether saya, .295 hitter with one hit already that day was done, and whether the pitcher could relax. And then, as the pitch counts rose, I realized, of course not. We live in a complex physical world, in which the pitcher needs to throw strikes, or at least pitches that persuade the batter he should swing. The stats tell us about the long run, but each new at-bat, in fact each pitch, might have any result. It did not occur to me to wonder why the Yankees were going through so many pitchers.

On Sunday morning, I read the Times article about the game and realized I had totally missed the big story: starting pitcher Bartolo Colon strained his hamstring and had to leave the game. The lesson? Stats are interesting, but they're never the whole story.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fun movie gadget from Slate

I signed on to Rotten Tomatoes years ago, mainly to keep an eye on the reviews of the online games my kids were playing and occasionally to look at movie reviews. I haven't looked at the site in a long time and the site has changed  a lot. And they have a lot more data about movies and movie reviews.

Now Slate has provided a nifty gadget that takes all that data and lets you compare careers of actors and directors -- who's up, who's down. Scroll down past the analysis of M. Night Shyamalan and the analysis of career trajectories, and you can plug in names yourself. It's fun. And I figure if I play with it enough I'll think of a way it's useful, too.

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