posted on 12:31 PM, January 30, 2017

*by Maria Lahiffe*

For many people, Excel can feel like a foreign land. Some people in your office may be able to speak the language, but you’re still labouring over a calculator and making decisions based on gut instinct. Maybe some of your donors have started asking for percentages and projections. Where to start?

An Excel file is basically a really big table, with rows and columns. The rows are numbered, while the columns are named with letters. You can put information into the table just like you would in MS Word. The great thing in Excel is that you can keep on increasing the size of your table, pretty much indefinitely.

Excel classifies things in cells in three different categories:

- text,
- numbers, or
- formulas.

Text is anything that is not a number or a formula. The words in this sentence are text. A picture is also treated like text.

Numbers can be plain numbers, like “1”, “2”, “63”, “29,653”, etc. Numbers can also be a whole lot of other things, like currency, percentages, dates, or times.

Numbers are powerful because you can do calculations on them. Want to find out how long a volunteer has been with you? Enter in the start date in one cell and the end date in another, then subtract. Done!

Want to do that for 100 volunteers, or 1000? Copy and paste the formula. Three seconds later, you have your 1000 answers.

That brings us to the last type of cell content: formulas. These include basic arithmetic and functions.

The first thing to remember about formulas is that every formula starts with an equals sign (=).

The second thing I need to tell you about is cell references.

Remember that all cells have a letter and a number. So cell A1 is in the first column and the first row; C6 is in the third column and the sixth row, and so on.

Cell references are EXTREMELY useful for formulas. You can enter a formula using cell references, then change the content of those referenced cells as many times as you want. The answer to the formula will update automatically.

Want to add, subtract, multiply or divide? Use the symbols.

- Add: +
- Subtract: -
- Multiply: *
- Divide: /

So the formula [=1+1] will give you the answer [2]. Use cell references and it gets a lot better:

Excel has hundreds of functions, but very few people use more than about 10 of them.

Let’s start with =SUM(). Say a donor wants to know the total number of volunteer hours in the past year. You have 300 volunteers. Here is how to do that in one step:

The beauty doesn’t stop there! Now that you have this, you can change the total in seconds.

- Let’s say you realize you made a mistake in entering Gumby’s volunteer hours. Easy peasy: just change the number in B3 and the calculation will update automatically.
- One of your program managers comes up with 12 more volunteers he forgot to include? No problem! Insert 12 rows and enter in the data. The calculation will update automatically. No fuss, no muss.

Everybody needs to use numbers to do analysis. Whether you are tracking volunteer hours, counting donor dollars, or planning spending for the month, you need to keep track of numbers and use them to plan for the future. Excel can be used to conduct planning, manage budgets, create charts, analyze usage data, and keep records.

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**Related blog posts:**

- Turning data into information - how to use Excel to make decisions
- Excel functions to simplify your life
- Using cell references in Excel