Do you use your gut – intuition – or your nonprofit data to help make big decisions?

Let me tell you a story about Rosie.

She is an experienced event manager who recently took a new job at a large-ish organization.


Rosie is what I’d call a data person. She thinks in spreadsheets. Every decision she makes in her personal or professional life is driven by the numbers – the ratings, the reviews, and the math.  So imagine her dismay when she found herself on a leadership team full of folks who make decisions based on gut, intuition, and feelings.


No one really cared about her throughout review of past event data (hey, the events hit their fundraising and attendance goals).  No one really cared that she had color coded historic event attendance by giving level or developed predictive analysis of the impact of going to a virtual event model based on 2020 industry benchmarks. Rosie felt completely unappreciated and like a square peg in a round hole.


I was laughing a bit to myself when I met up with Rosie and heard her story, because in some respects, I am her polar opposite. I’m a planner for sure – but my plans are based on my instincts. While I have learned to respect and use data, it’s not my natural way of working.


Watch my Facebook session about this topic.


There are several schools of thought when it comes to the great “should I trust my nonprofit data or my gut” debate!


The pro-data folks say:

  • Data is objective, unbiased information.
  • It helps to identify patterns, obtain actionable insights, and smart people use that insight to make business decisions.
  • Intuition is subjective, and business decisions should be made based on objective information.
  • Intuition is effective when you don’t have data or the time to think logically before making a decision. And even though you can develop intuition based on knowledge and experience (a type of data), it’s still risky to use it in business decision making.


The pro-gut people say:

  • Too much data for our human mind to analyze – easy to feel overwhelmed and stuck
  • Rampant skepticism around the validity of our data
  • I don’t really know whether to use nonprofit data or my gut effectively


Guess what – this doesn’t need to be a tug of war. Both data and intuition reflect our biases. We can typically make pretty good intuition-based decisions for situations in which we are familiar, but our intuition can’t help us with the unfamiliar.


If you’re feeling stuck about using data – ask yourself these two questions:


  1. Will more data could actually help you make a good decision? If your organization is considering a new fundraising idea, for example, you can do market research and assess other nonprofit offerings — but that information won’t guarantee that people will give to you. In a situation like this one, you may consider the data at hand and then rely on your gut.
  2. Is there available data that I can quickly access? If successful mental models and benchmarks exist for this kind of decision, it’s probably a good idea to use them. On the other hand, if you’re trying something new, there may not BE any data to inform your decision.


Remember: Intuition draws on the objective and subjective information you already know — so your gut feel is, to some extent, data-driven. Data is reflective – looking back at the past to inform the future. Intuition does the exact same thing.


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The suggestion I made to Rosie: There’s always something to learn from folks who don’t think like you do.


First, you’ll have to know when enough data is enough. Again, half-baked plans aren’t great, but the right decision is never the result of perfectly complete data. Instead, it’s often a balance between too little and too much.


Data doesn’t detract from a well-timed gut feeling.


Instead, data can provide your intuition with well-documented and logical paths, satisfying both shareholders and employees. Data makes it easier to establish a history and makes your organization less reliant on the gut feelings of one individual.


Intuition humanizes your data. It allows you to analyze without reaching decision paralysis or fatigue. It identifies and contextualizes data in ways that machines still aren’t able to. Using both to your advantage in a way that embraces their strengths and forgoes the adversarial relationship.


Now Rosie is ready to have some conversations with her leadership teammates,work together to find ways to bring the right data – the right amount of data – into their planning work. Hooray!


Your Turn!

When you need to make a big decision, ask yourself: do I typically use nonprofit data or my gut?  Share your answers in the comments!