We know a lot about what is working in today’s multichannel world. We know that engaging and supporting our constituents throughout the Customer Journey and personalizing donor communications create long-lasting relationships. But, to engage donors in this way, we have to know them—and we do know a lot about them. In fact, we have so much data to analyze and interpret that it can be hard to know where to start.

Before you get overwhelmed and are tempted to spend exorbitant amounts of money on data management, take a step back and think about what you really need.

What will really move the needle for your organization?

First: Devise a data strategy.

Start with the basics. That may sound a bit cavalier, but stay with me. Ask yourself, what do you already know about your constituents? You collect online and offline data including demographic, event, volunteer, giving history, and more—that’s a powerhouse in itself. What else is easily available to you? What about third-party data like age, gender and affluence?

Then ask, in addition to what I already have access to, is there anything else I need? You may not have to save every click, cookie, Facebook like, retweet, web analytic and social media listening fact. Be thoughtful about what you collect. Start with what you know to be predictive and impactful. Is it your donors’ communication preferences, is it your volunteer data, is it information on donors who give to other organizations? What data helps predict financial success? Focus on that. Bottom line, don’t keep data that you don’t have a plan to analyze or use.

Second: Consider data warehousing.

Pulling your data together from disparate sources—marketing, planned giving, volunteer, advocate, donor, etc. databases—into a data warehouse, a centralized repository, is the next step in being able to mine and analyze your data faster and more accurately and cost effectively than you can today.

The traditional roadblocks in the data transformation process can now be overcome as new data acquisition methods and data delivery platforms can dramatically reduce lead time and costs. A Data Lake, which is a read-only copy of your various Systems of Record (SOR), can reduce the data provisioning burden on your SOR’s and make raw data available for data mining, model building, and propensity scoring. The Cloud, which offers secure and instantaneous provisioning of scalable compute and storage capacity, can make you more nimble and proactive in developing a 360-degree view of your constituents. Finally, the movement toward data-driven transformation methods, maintainable by Business Analysts (instead of programmers) diminishes the need for the traditional Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) frameworks.

Let your data strategy determine what to bring over to your warehouse so it can be stored, sorted, analyzed, and used. You need technology, but again, you don’t need it to do it all right now. Develop a platform that will grow with you.

As you create a data warehouse strategy, decide what data needs frequent updating—is it donor profiles, giving history, email interactions, or volunteer activities? You might want different strategies for different type of data. Determine what is right for your organization first by understanding how often data actually changes and how those changes will trigger an action. Not all data is created equal.

Third: Make your marketing data actionable.

When your data warehouse is in place, you can start to use your data to drive results—that is, to transform your data into actionable information.

This is where business intelligence comes in. We often think of business intelligence as a reporting function, but today’ new and emerging tools are integrated and smart. They are not just stand-alone reports or pretty dashboards but technology solutions that can point out areas where improvement is needed. Does participation in an event result in continued giving? Do your volunteers give more than your general donor base? If a report shows that a recent campaign resulted in a 20% response rate. Good, you have data, but what does it mean? Is 20% good or bad?

Once you have embraced and adopted these new data provisioning, delivery, integration and visualization methods, you can link them to marketing execution platforms. Then you will truly be able to spend your time creating campaigns and events based on donor insights and facts. These applications make it easier than ever to use your data to plan and coordinate marketing efforts across channels, design trigger-based campaigns, and optimize segments that maximize your budget.

Your data is golden only if you analyze it and use it.

There is no value in sitting on a pile of gold or a reservoir of oil that you don’t have any means to access,” says my colleague Chuck Longfield. Today’s donors expect personal communications and customized appeals. Unless you have control of your data and a way to transform it into marketing actions you will fall behind. You have the choice of doing it all yourself or engaging a technology partner to help, but in the not so distant future strategy for data, data warehousing and business intelligence solutions will no longer be optional. Big data and sophisticated donors will require them.


Wendy Fox is Blackbaud’s Vice President of Information Management and Strategic Services. After a long career with Epsilon, she joined Target Software in 2001 to build the data management services group which went on to become an industry leader. She continued to grow and expand these services after Target Software was acquired by Blackbaud in 2007. Wendy holds a BA in Computer Science and an MS in Business Administration and Management. She has more than 20 years’ experience working with nonprofits and serves on the board of Strategies for Children. She is passionate about innovative technologies that increase access to information, improve decision-making, and enhance the donor experience.

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