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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: "The Art of Data Interpretation"

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

As a knowledge enterprise, the ASU Lodestar Center seeks to produce and disseminate relevant, high-quality research to our stakeholders. Whether practitioners, volunteers, or donors, we want our end-users to understand issues in ways that help them become more efficient and effective within their nonprofit organizations and across their networks of nonprofits.

Resources are a huge challenge to any research effort. High-quality nonprofit and philanthropic research requires financial investments at a level few funders are willing to support; yet these investments are a must. If our research is to be valid and useful, the design, data collection, and analysis must be meticulous and exacting.

Another vexing challenge to researchers is the interpretation of data. Research isn't just the science of collecting data, it is also the art of interpreting, within the context of all other available information, what that data actually mean.

Consider the following: On the same day in the fall of 2007, two contradictory newspaper headlines accompanied high profile, front-page articles in both the East Valley Tribune and the Arizona Republic. The stories were about Arizona schools and the state of education pertaining to the academic achievement of students and their schools.

The headline in the East Valley Tribune was, "More Arizona public schools are 'excelling'." The sub-heading stated, "More of Arizona's public schools are excelling, according to the state Department of Education."[1]

The headline in the Arizona Republic noted, "More Ariz. Schools are Failing or Lagging." The sub-heading for this headline read: "More Arizona schools are failing or underperforming as they try to get their students to make academic progress, a state assessment shows."[2]

How could two newspapers, drawing from the same data source, interpret research results so differently? Both headlines were technically correct based upon the data. However, the interpretation of the results were completely different. These headlines illustrate the challenges and opportunities inherent to research analysis and dissemination.

As our center continues to produce and disseminate research, we will be clear about our choice of methodologies, the framework for our analysis, and why we interpreted data the way we did. Our goal is for stakeholders to view us as the credible source of knowledge and tools for those who lead, manage and support nonprofits.

^ [1] Ryman, Anne. "More Ariz. Schools are Failing Or Lagging." Arizona Republic: A.1. Arizona Republic. 15 Oct. 2007. ProQuest. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.
<^ [2] Falkenhagen, Andrea. "More Arizona public schools are 'excelling': Top designation shows 20 percent rise from '06." East Valley Tribune, The (Mesa-Scottsdale-Tempe, AZ) 15 Oct. 2007, State and regional: NewsBank. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.

Robert Ashcraft


ASU Lodestar Center Blog