Creating a real data driven strategy

Big data has changed the way big nonprofits operate. Over the past decade, the power of data analysis has provided forward-thinking nonprofits invaluable insights and direction that has improved every aspect of their operations. From being able to measure the exact success or failure of their initiatives and refining them to be more effective, to being able to customize targeted retention campaigns, big nonprofits with access to powerful CRM solutions have been benefiting tremendously from data for years.

Now, it's your turn!
 
Powerful CRMs are no longer the sole domain of major nonprofits with deep pockets. There are affordable options on the market now that rival (and in some cases exceed) the capabilities of what was considered cutting edge just a few short years ago. The proliferation of this technology has placed the potential of data in the hands of nonprofits of all sizes, not just the extremely well funded.

But, a good CRM is just the beginning. Before you can truly harness the capabilities of big data, you need to understand how to use it. When your nonprofit is ready to experiment with a data driven strategy for the first time, keep the following tips and ideas in mind.

Ease into it

Data collection and aggregation can have huge benefits for a nonprofit looking to make the most out of  limited resources, but it’s easy to drown yourself in data points if you’re not careful. While you might be eager to collect every piece of information you can and comb through it for potential insights, it’s best to start small. 

Begin by establishing your goals instead of thinking about data points. Understand what you want to do (improve donor retention by 20% over the next three years, encourage larger donations from core donors, etc) and then identify the kinds of data points that are relevant to that goal. This way, instead of scrambling to collect every possible data point and correlate and cross-reference them all against every other point, you can focus on a few key pieces of information and a clear target. This is the very essence of a data driven strategy – deliberate, actionable steps towards a measurable goal.

Also, don’t take this new focus on data collection as an excuse to badger your donors for all kinds of details and trivia. You’ll freak people out if you provide them with a 50 point survey to fill out when making a donation. Data collection should be innocuous and friendly. 

This doesn't need to be difficult. Every interaction you have with a donor can be a chance to find out more about them! Each visit to the website, every form they fill out, each email they open (or ignore), and every phone call can help shed more light on who your donors are and what motivates them to give. There is no need to play 50 Questions with your supporters if you’re already paying attention to everything they are telling you. 

Pool your data

Make sure you are combining all your data sources. For nonprofits that have been around for awhile, there is often a sizable amount of fragmentation when it comes to what kind of information is already known and stored and who has access to it. The first step in any successful data collection effort should be to pool all of that existing info together to establish a foundation for new data collect measure, and then to make sure the people who need it can access it.

A good CRM system should make this easy, conveniently pooling all of a donor's relevant data in one easy to browse profile. A decent system should be able to pull up detailed records on a donor, who they are, how long they’ve given to the organization, their donation history, all in one place, so you never need to go searching for anything. 

It should also be secure. When you are dealing with your donor's private information, you have a responsibility to honour the trust they've placed in you. Access should be controlled so that staff can get what they need, while preventing abuses and exposure.

Sort it all out

Now that you have all of your supporter’s data available to you, you should be able to identify some patterns and trends with it. Every organization attracts different kinds of donors. From the long-term veterans who reliably donate a set amount, to the "first-time-last-time” donors who give once and then seem to disappear off your rolls, to those with highly specific interests or concerns (they may only give to one particular cause, or during a specific holiday). 

Use these points to identify different types or groups of donors and organize them together. This information will be invaluable for directing different marketing/retention campaigns that specifically address the needs and concerns of these groups. Instead of sending out the same fund raising letters and messaging to everyone regardless of the context of their previous donations, you can hone in and target your messaging to specific sub-groups for maximum effect. 

Make sure everyone is on the same page 

One thing that you need to be careful of when you pursue a data driven strategy is that every aspect of operations is working together. You can’t have a donor receiving a highly personalized email or social media message that speaks to their exact interests in the morning only to find a "to whom it may concern” generic letter in their mailbox in the afternoon. Inconsistent messaging with your donors will only make your efforts less effective. That’s why it’s important for everyone to understand the point of a data driven strategy and stay on the same page.

Maintain your data

Like any other asset you want you keep in good order, you need to maintain your data and give it the occasional bit of TLC. Just like your car needs regular oil changes and a few air filter now and then, you data should be refreshed and updated whenever possible. Life moves pretty fast, and data can have a short shelf life if you’re not paying attention. If a donor moves, get’s married, changers their name or title, or whatever else, your data should reflect that. 

It’s best if this is done organically. The best CRMs out there are able to automatically update fresh information a donor gives you and spot cases where it looks like there may be duplication occurring. While data hygiene might sound like a lot of monotonous work, it doesn't have to be!

Give it time

A data driven strategy can yield tremendous results for your organization, but it's important to remember that it won't happen over night. The true benefits of collecting and maintaining data become apparent a year or two after you begin when you can begin to recognize real trends and patterns among your donors, your campaigns, and even your volunteers/staff. With this kind of knowledge, you can steadily optimize and refine your approach, eliminating waste and concentrating only on what is most effective so you can give that much more to your mission.

Data is a long game, but it is always a winning game.
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