How to Become a Massive Data Nerd

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Our series in collaboration with Charity Digital explores the essentials of data analytics. This second article in the program demonstrates how everyone can get involved in understanding data, whatever their previous experience or knowledge

What does the phrase ‘data nerd’ mean to you? A quick Google search conjures images of vested professionals in jam-jar glasses, poring over reams of paper covered in numbers, but perhaps it is time we put the stereotypes aside.

Everyone can become involved in data analytics, regardless of background or experience. It has the power to optimize our operations and it doesn’t take a data whizz to unlock that power. Data insight is ripe for the picking for anyone in your organization, from the intern to the Chief Executive, and we can all be responsible for weaving it into our decision-making and operations.  

There are lots of charities already making use of the data available to them, whether using it to improve medical research or realign their services with who needs them most.  

It’s time to stop fearing the charts and statistics and start translating them. With a little bit of knowledge, we can learn a lot. Here we share some helpful tips to get you started on how to understand data and become your organization’s resident data nerd.  

Get to know your audience

Data cannot tell you a story unless you know where it begins. Use data initially to set base levels and goals. This will make it easier to see changes, whether positive or negative, and adapt as necessary.  

For example, there are plenty of prevalent infographics that profess to show the best times to send out communications. But that random infographic doesn’t know your audience. Get to know them and you’ll end up with data that you can build from, and really understand how to best communicate with the audience that matters to you. 

Understand your purpose

Every solution needs a starting point. With such a vast array of data available at your fingertips, whether click rates, impressions, or views, it can be hard to sort the wood from the trees. It’s a lot easier if you know what problem you’re trying to solve.  

First you need to establish a goal. What do you want to achieve with your data? What data do you have currently that might help? How long will it realistically take to analyze? Once you’ve established these parameters, you can pick the best form of data analytics to achieve that goal. 

There are many different types of analytics, including descriptive, diagnostic, and predictive. It’s important to know the different forms of analysis you’re undertaking so that you can utilize your data in the most effective way for your organization. 


Simply put, descriptive analytics tell us what’s happening, but not why. For example, it might show that your email opening rate has increased or that less people are interacting with you than before. This is a good starting point, but it’ll take further analysis to discover the reason behind it.  


If descriptive analysis is the ‘what’ of data analytics, diagnostics is the ‘why’. It takes into account variables such as time of day, mentions, and reviews, and applies them to your data to identify areas that might need addressing. Whereas descriptive data might tell you that your email opening rates are decreasing, diagnostic analysis will show you that it’s worsened over the summer because more people are on holiday than usual. 


Predictive analytics combines the above uses of data with systems and algorithms that estimate future results based on what’s gone before.  

This is the more complex form of data analytics, since it can involve statistical modeling and machine learning when performed on a large scale. But don’t panic – humans are pretty good at learning from experience, too, and we can still make predictions based on trends we identify.  

The benefits of predictive analysis can be huge. Continuing our previous example, predictive analytics can tell us what donation impact to expect due to the decreased email open rates during the summer.  This type of analysis can help charities plan better and adjust their communication schedule.  

Predictive analytics can predict areas of concern where additional help might be needed or improve engagement with your content based on which topics you see perform well. It can even help charities identify donors based on previous behaviors, so there is a lot to be gained for both your organization and the communities you support. 

Start simple

Understanding data does not require any fancy tools. Almost every application you use will have some form of analytics you can learn from, from Google to MailChimp. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Simply update your trusty spreadsheet manually and keep an eye on your data from there.

First and foremost, remember to give yourself a break. Don’t worry about things like learning complicated Microsoft Excel formulas while you’re still in the learning stage. Get the basics down first, the rest will come. And the Internet is full of free instructions if you need them.  

What’s more, using simple and existing tools means everyone in your organization can have a go at becoming a data nerd, just like you! 

Make it clear

The best way to use data effectively is to make it easy to understand. You’re more likely to achieve buy-in from your colleagues, leadership team, and especially your donors if they understand what it is you’re trying to show them. Blankets of numbers can make them switch off before you’ve even started. 

The human brain processes visual information quicker than it processes text. The site offers tips on how to make data visually appealing on spreadsheets, while sites like Canva or Snappa can be used to create graphics that will help you highlight key statistics. 

Clarity helps you. When you’re juggling multiple jobs—and multiple datasets—understanding your own data at first glance helps you tell its story better to others. 

Color-coding, charts, and infographics are all simple but effective tools in making your data stand out. Never underestimate the power of a good color scheme!  

Find the right resources

We know that when you start out, it can feel a bit like you’re drowning in a big wide world of impenetrable data. But there are plenty of online resources out there to help you on your journey to becoming a data nerd.  

First, look at data outside your organization. The United Nations Statistics Division has compiled a list of international statistics authorities, including the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the UK and 11 different bureaus in the United States dealing with data on everything from agriculture to transportation. National data published by government bodies and local authorities could help you understand your audience better and refine your services. 

Sites like Worldometer, managed by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers, also provide regularly updated global statistics on everything from the number of births this year to the number of tweets sent daily. Worldbank likewise offers open access to global development data, such as population growth and poverty rates.  

When it comes to analyzing such data, look for organizations that can help. PIR has the .ORG Learning Centeron its site filled with resources on how to use data, among other things. The charity DataKind, which works with other charities to help them use data for social good and has chapters in India, Singapore, the UK and US, also provides online guidance

See, we’re all data nerds now.