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What I'm Saying.

The nonprofit buzz word for 2014, Big Data

Nonprofit Communications

Recently, I came across an article written by Geoff Livingston entitled, “The Vanity of New Metrics” where he discusses the idea of measuring everything in our lives to “giv[e] us the chance to optimize our lifestyle… Performance will become a mantra for some more competitive and vain people.” He goes on to discuss the possible “societal impact” that constant measurement of what seems like the mundane will render as being increasingly tied to “self image” in a direction that is “[t]ouching and changing people’s lives or breaking records in arcane communities that relish niche statistics.” He further directly asks rhetorically, “What will we write on our gravestones in 50 years, a top ranked blogger who achieved a 16.7% lifetime share rate, or writer?”

It seems that “Big Data” is getting more and more traction within the nonprofit community. “Big Data is a reference to the vast volumes of data being created by consumer behavior. This data is captured, aggregated and analyzed to produce more effective marketing solutions.” writes the Grizzard Communications Group. In fact, the topic of big data is happeing in places like here, here, here, and here just to identify a few.

Big data is culling large amounts of “consumer” data. We’re talking behavior patterns, like checking in on Foursquare at a location, what brand of butter one buys at a grocery store or even what kind of car one drives. Its relevance to the nonprofit sector could potentially yield exponential rewards. However, too much data and one is left frozen on how to glean meaning from the mounds of data one has sitting before them to analyze.

Nonprofits, in general, not all, but most, have yet to master the ability to analyze the data that they already have on their hands. Data like donor history, email subscription segmentation and biological demographics. One blog frankly declares,

“Nonprofits are not exploring the possibilities of their own data already available. This ‘low hanging fruit’ presents a huge opportunity for nonprofits right now… I do think nonprofits should acknowledge the trend to collect more data. We should be evaluating it, and testing its potential to create more relevant communications and donor-focused strategies.”

Focus, focus, focus

We should be focusing on what data we already have such as:

  • Donor history
  • Supporter interests like if they are interested in becoming a volunteer or getting involved in organizing fundraising events.
  • If they live in a certain zip code radius to be able to attend donor events
  • If they own a home
  • What level of education they have completed
  • What is their relationship to your organization
    • If they were served by your organization in the past
    • If a relative was served by your organization in the past
    • If they know/knew someone who was served by your organization in the past

These things are readily available and can help you to determine:

  • How stable the individual supporter is financially
  • How committed a supporter is to their community and/or stable they are against moving away from the geographical area
  • How committed they are to working to accomplish your organizational mission
  • What their likes and/or dislikes are
  • How far up the ladder of engagement they are with your organization; you wouldn’t ask an annual $500 donor to give $5 via email would you?

As is typical with many nonprofit organizations, they are hierarchically flat organizations. This means that someone in the field and/or considered line staff or someone who is entry level is likely two to three levels below the CEO when it comes to who is supervising who. That means that there isn’t a lot of movement/promotions and what is relevant to our discussion here, there aren’t a lot of extra hands to sit down and digest data like there is no tomorrow. There is limited time, bandwidth and manpower when it comes to working at a nonprofit in most cases.

That being said, nonprofit professionals need to focus their search for data and time analyzing it. They need to focus on what they want their outcome to be and not solely on outputs. You might ask yourself, is there a difference between the two? Absolutely, yes there is and I wrote about it here, if you would like to learn more.

Start with the end outcome in mind

Instead of focusing on how many people opened or how many clickthroughs came from an email or how much was donated as a result of an email/direct mail piece or even how many people showed up to an event, you might want to ask a bigger question; what is all of this activity doing to contribute to my desired outcome? What are my outcome indicators (those measurements that add up to achieving your outcome) that I can measure? These measures could be quantitative (what a CEO or Development Director might prefer) or qualitative. Quantitative meaning easily measured where you can count the measure. Qualitative meaning something that is experiential or less easy to quantify (such as was someone completely satisfied as a result of your action/event/email)? What qualifies as someone’s complete satisfaction for one person may not measure up for another. So it is a gray area of measurement. Sometimes these forms of measurement, qualitative, take the form of stories or case studies that result from the action taken with a person. It is their version of how the result affected them personally. Not everyone’s story will be the same.

The point I am trying to drive home here is that there is data already there for you, the nonprofit professional. Perhaps too much data. You just need to identify what you want your end outcome to be and come up with measures that will add up to that result. Is seeking as much money as possible a valid measurement or is reaching a campaign goal to buy new office space an outcome to aspire to?

Work to master your own data, add more measures as soon as you are comfortable measuring what you are measuring now from your own data such as A/B testing email subject lines or the length of a given direct mail or email communication before jumping to seek out “big data” that you can purchase from data conglomerates who specialize in aggregating data for anyone willing to pay for it.

Pursuing “big data” will come with time, but for now, question what you are measuring at the moment and ask yourself, “Is this activity contributing to my end outcome or am I just measuring to measure to produce a number so the higher ups will be pleased that things are growing?”

What is growth if it is not quality growth?

Are your lists getting bigger but your open rates are dropping off? Are those who you are communicating with willing to become an evangelical for your cause if you asked them to do so? Would they do anything you ask them to do in the name of your mission or are they just a number that adds up to a total? Meaningful, quality data is so much more powerful when it comes to driving relevant content and successful campaigns than just having a list to send a message to. As a nonprofit professional, you need to know your list. Know your supporters. Know your donors.

Who are you and why are you talking to me?

How well do you know your supporters, volunteers and donors? Building a relationship and getting to know them as well as you would know a husband/wife/partner/family member is the key to success when it comes to the success of raising money as well as generating success toward achieving your mission.

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- Will

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