Make 2019 the year your nonprofit does better with data - Generocity Philly

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Jan. 2, 2019 12:00 pm

Make 2019 the year your nonprofit does better with data

Whether you're a data evangelist or a data-phobe, there are simple steps you can take to improve how your organization thinks about and uses data to advance its mission.

Data collection can be as simple as asking clients and donors how your organization helps them.

(Photo via facebook.com/AmericanFriendsServiceCommittee)

This is guest post by Beth Hallowell, communications research director at the American Friends Service Committee.
Do you wish your nonprofit were better with data?

Are you intrigued by the possibilities of using data to improve your organization? Or are you a data-skeptic, unsure what all the fuss is about when it comes to analytics and metrics? Maybe you are even a data-phobe, certain that using numbers to accomplish mission-driven work can only lead to harm.

Whatever your personal feelings, it’s likely that your nonprofit doesn’t have a ton of data, and that it doesn’t make much use of the data it has. The nonprofit sector has been late to the game when it comes to using research and data strategically. Despite the enormous potential of growing accessibility of data — information that can be used to improve services, evaluate communications and fundraising, and make operations decisions — barriers to making use of data abound.

Many organizations lack the money to hire analysts or researchers to make sense of the data an organization may have. Rarely do organizations have the bandwidth to conduct research even when the return on investment is clear. Preconceived notions among boards or leadership, like “Big Data is bad” or “More data is better,” can create further barriers to developing a balanced approach to using good data to guide decision-making.

There are a few steps that any nonprofit can take if someone has a little bit of time and a good amount of curiosity.

Despite these barriers, many nonprofits across the Philadelphia area are growing savvier with their use of research and data. At the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), we’ve been experimenting with how to best use the data we have access to, conducting research to generate data we don’t have, and curating that information for different stakeholders. We are home to a small research team that uses a mix of user research, digital marketing research, message testing and media analysis to better understand who our digital audiences are and what they want at each step of our advocacy and fundraising pipeline.

For example, in 2016 we conducted an interview study combined with a meta-analysis of social media analytics to develop our organization’s first audience persona, expanding that number to five as we dug deeper into the data that we already had on some of our supporters, as well as conducted surveys to fill in the gaps of what we didn’t know about others.

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We also used a combination of interviews, surveys and A/B testing to develop and hone new messages with our audiences, leading to changes in how we frame content and segment our email list. And we’ve begun to use data modeling to better understand donor behavior, looking for statistically significant correlations between online advocacy actions and donations.

There are few organizations that can support an in-house research team, but there are a few steps that any nonprofit can take if someone has a little bit of time and a good amount of curiosity.

The first step is to take a few hours every few months — say, once a quarter — to connect with a couple of people outside of your organization. These people might be clients, donors or even just newsletter recipients. Ask them, via phone or email, how they are doing. What’s going on for them? What are they concerned about? What kinds of problems are they facing that your organization can help solve as a service provider/recipient of donations/information source? Don’t assume you know why people come to you, unless you are in the habit of asking them already (and if you are, that’s great!).

As you begin to see areas where the things that people say and do don’t line up, consider stepping back a little further to gather a little extra data.

As you make this a part of your quarterly work plan, also take a few minutes to look at any data you may have on what people are doing with your organization. This can take many forms, from client feedback surveys to web or CRM analytics. See where there is alignment (and misalignment) between what you are hearing from real people, and what those same groups are actually doing with you. Are you hearing from your donors that they love your mission, but individual donations are going down? Are your clients giving you great feedback on surveys, but retention is soft?

As you begin to see areas where the things that people say and do don’t line up, consider stepping back a little further to gather a little extra data. For example, if your individual giving program or your client base isn’t growing despite positive feedback, consider digging deeper into both your conversations with individuals and the data that you have at hand. Where else do your donors give money? Where else do your clients go for services? What else do these groups need from you or from others?

As you ask these bigger-picture questions (gathering what researchers call qualitative data), look at other data points you already have. Do the conversion rates on your website’s donation forms meet or exceed industry benchmarks? Are your clients more likely to miss appointments at certain times of the day or the year?

As you become more accustomed to reaching out to your supporters quarter after quarter and regularly checking in on the analytics that matter to the problem you are trying to solve, you’ll likely begin to see more cause-and-effect: an easier online giving experience, for example, can help increase donations from already enthusiastic donors, while testing out new program times or dates can help increase participation. Often the first step toward using data to make better decisions is simply taking a look at the right information on a regular basis.

As you set your 2019 goals and you feel all your feelings about data one way or the other, consider using the data you have and taking the time to gather a little extra to help you make better decisions. The payoff in higher donations, higher participation rates, better allocation of scarce resources and more can be big.

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