Every industry has its own share of hot buzzwords, and the nonprofit sector is no different. Lately, everywhere you look you see articles and blog posts and tweets and smoke signals about being “data-driven.” EVERYONE wants to be data-driven. Just put data in the driver’s seat and next stop, success!
It’s true that using data to help drive strategic decision-making is critically important now in the twenty-teens. But not every organization knows how to be a data-driven organization.
Now, the specifics of successfully incorporating data analysis may differ from one organization to another; mission-critical data points for a regional nonprofit theater company will differ from those of a small cat shelter or soup kitchen. But there are some universal struggles that every nonprofit faces when trying to get on board the data train.
To that end, here’s a little back and forth between yours truly and GenericNonprofit.org facing the inherent challenges in adopting a data-driven strategy.
GenericNonprofit.org: So we’re supposed to be data-driven. All the big guys are doing it. But we’re a small nonprofit, so where do I start?
Me: Well, for starters, you already have data. You are tracking information from your givers, right? What system do you use to track gifts?
GenericNonprofit.org: Well, we put everything into an Excel spreadsheet.
Me: Please tell me you’re kidding.
GenericNonprofit.org: Don’t worry! It’s really well organized. For each event we have we create a new spreadsheet with different tabs for different types of gifts.
Me: *sobs quietly*
GenericNonprofit.org: Wait, that’s not good? I thought it was really well organized.
Me: Well….. not really, no. How do you send out receipts?
GenericNonprofit.org: *blank stare*
Me: Or year-end statements for tax purposes?
GenericNonprofit.org: Oh, our accountant does that. It only takes her about a week or two to pull it all together.
Me: See, that’s a week or two that you could be doing other things. A week or two you’re paying someone for something that should take a day. And what about tracking your top givers? How can you even identify them with data all over the place?
GenericNonprofit.org: Well… I have post-its on my monitor for some of the people I think are our top donors.
Me: Stop! That’s it! Step 1, you need a good CRM.
GenericNonprofit.org: But we’re a small nonprofit and those are pricey!
Me: See, here’s the thing: there’s a cost everything. Those two weeks you’re paying an accountant to send out tax receipts could pay for a sizeable portion of your CRM. There’s an opportunity cost you’re missing out on by NOT knowing who your top givers really are. If you have a good CRM, the value far outweighs the cost. With the right tools, you can track your interactions with ALL of your givers, know who’s giving how much over how many years, track which of your fundraising efforts is the most efficient and productive – not to mention which marketing efforts are LOSING you money.
GenericNonprofit.org: That would be amazing. So by just tracking our gifts we can see all that?
Me: Well…yes and no.
GenericNonprofit.org: I knew there was a catch.
Me: No catch! But tracking data goes beyond “Sean Carter gave us $100 on March 1st.”
GenericNonprofit.org: Right. We also need to know if it was by check or credit card.
Me: For starters.
GenericNonprofit.org: This is starting to sound like a lot.
Me: It doesn’t have to be. Again, it’s just a matter of using the right CRM.
GenericNonprofit.org: OK. So what else do we need to track?
Me: Think of the entire lifecycle of a gift. Where did it come from? Did someone give because you sent them a mailer? Because they attended an event? Because they were asked by a donor development rep?
GenericNonprofit.org: So mark gifts by what event someone gave to. OK.
Me: More than that, though…do you like M&M’s?
GenericNonprofit.org: Who doesn’t?
Me: Great. Keep that in mind for tracking giving. You’ll want to track the M&M’s for incoming gifts, meaning the Message and the Method. What messaging moved someone to give, and what method, or channel, did they use to give? Because both matter. You might send out a great fundraising email asking people to give online, but if your givers prefer to give via check by mail, it won’t make a difference. Track both and you’ll start to know what moves your givers and how they prefer to give to you.
GenericNonprofit.org: Knowing where our gifts come from would be really helpful.
Me: And you’ll want to know where they go.
GenericNonprofit.org: Like…to the bank?
Me: Well, what are you funding? Sure, lots of people might give to your general operating fund. But you probably get restricted gifts too. And you’ll want to track that carefully. So, you want to know where gifts are coming from, and once they do come in, make sure to track where they go. Then you can track your progress to hitting certain funding goals and be sure to accomplish your mission.
GenericNonprofit.org: OK, so…I get a CRM and I put in all the gifts we get, track where they come from and what we do with them. And I’ll be data-driven?
Me: Well it’s a good start.
GenericNonprofit.org: There’s more?
Me: Always. You can’t really be a data-driven organization until you start collecting the right data and tracking it effectively. Once you do, you can start reporting on and analyzing your data to identify trends and then make strategic decisions based on that.
GenericNonprofit.org: I’m getting tired. So THEN we’ll be data-driven?
Me: Once data starts driving your decision making… yes, you’ll be data-driven.
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