Recently, I was watching a presentation that Melinda Gates gave at a TEDTalk last fall. She was talking about what nonprofits can learn from for-profit businesses like Coca Cola. It boiled down to three main points:
- Use real-time data to immediately improve what you’re doing
- Use and acquire local entrepreneurial talent
- Market your mission
I started to really ponder the first point: Use real-time data. The truth is that data can tell a story. It can better inform your mission’s work. But, you have to be listening to what it’s telling you. And you need to be listening all the time.
As Melinda Gates pointed out, nonprofits often analyze data at the end of a project instead of throughout the execution of the project. As a technology consultant for nonprofits, I work with many organizations, often helping them implement and optimize their use of software to collect various types of data, and I see that when you regularly capture and use your data, it can help you to run your organization more efficiently and serve your mission more effectively.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Ideally, you should consider collection and use of data as part of the planning phase before any big project or campaign. You should at least have a general idea of:
- what data you’ll collect about a project
- what you’ll use if for
- how you’ll collect it
- when you’ll collect it
This type of planning is second nature to for-profit companies, which must constantly increase their margins and profit in order to meet shareholder demands. But as a nonprofit professional, the extra planning and record-keeping involved may seem daunting — or even wasteful — to you since it means spending time on “business” instead of on the mission.
In reality, a well-executed data strategy can help you increase the success of your overall mission by helping you identify successful fundraising strategies, recognize changing trends in donor response to different campaigns, and allow more accurate predictions of future campaign results.
Consider the example of a large fundraising campaign. To use real-time data effectively, you need to do more than count donations at the end of the campaign. Instead, divide the overall campaign into a number of smaller segments or phases, and use the data collected during each phase to fine-tune your fundraising techniques for the next phase. For an annual giving campaign, you could plan for quarterly phases with a brief pause for data analysis between each phase.
The details about exactly what data to collect for each campaign or project may vary. But in general, one of your main objectives should be to find out as much as possible about donors, what portion of your campaign they are responding to, and why.
Back to the example of an annual giving campaign: For such a campaign, you might deploy both direct mail and email marketing, and perhaps social media. For each of these strategies, you need to be able to judge how well it is working, so at a minimum you should keep track of:
- number of constituents reached
- number of donations received
- total amount raised
- total cost
By reviewing this data continually during the campaign, you’ll be able to recognize if a certain strategy is not producing the results you were expecting. This, in turn, will let you make adjustments to how (or even if) you employ that strategy during the next phase of the campaign.
Beyond collecting and using basic data, diving deeper to collect more detailed constituent data can help you know your constituents better and spot trends as they develop. Consider an extreme example: Say you notice after the first phase of a campaign that a large proportion of those who donated in response to a particular email appeal were high-income married couples living in yurts. With this knowledge, you could then (1) review the wording and targeting of that particular appeal to make it more effective outside this fairly narrow demographic , or (2) decide to augment some of your other fundraising strategies in order to build even stronger bonds with these constituents, turning more of them into long-term supporters.
Collecting real-time data can also help you determine where you have the greatest need so you can concentrate efforts and resources in the most meaningful way. For example, if you’re campaigning for specific programs, you don’t want to be surprised at the end of a six-month campaign by finding out that you didn’t raise enough to fund the project. By continually tracking the effectiveness of different campaigns and strategies and identifying which ones are “on track”, you can evaluate your campaign marketing strategies and decide where to focus your efforts in order to meet your desired goals. And, conversely, knowing which ones are not “on track” can help you provide a more narrowly focused and compelling appeal to your donor base.
By gradually introducing these real-time data concepts to your fundraising activities, you’ll be able to both increase the efficiency of each individual campaign and recognize longer-term trends in the outcome generated by different strategies year over year. The result will be more money raised, a more involved constituent base, and less time spent wondering if you reach more high-income yurt-living couples via direct mail, by emailing, or on Facebook.