Using data wisely

The story in the data

In Short

Clean data isn’t just about efficiency

My phone rings.

Woman: Ephraim?

Me: Yes.

Woman: This is XXX from nonprofit YYY. Do you know about our organization?

Me: No I don’t.

Woman: You are listed in our database as a volunteer.

Me: Me? I don’t remember volunteering with your charity. What year does it say I volunteered?

Woman: Let me look…2012.

Me: 2012?

Woman: Yes. You worked as a fundraiser at organization ZZZ and you volunteered to help us.

Me: Got it. How can I help?

Woman: Would you like to volunteer with us?

Me: I need a little refresher about what you do. Please email me information and we’ll see.

Woman: Thank you.

This phone call took place last week. I want to say I’m shocked but after almost two decades in the nonprofit sector, sadly I am not.

We may be familiar with best practices when it comes to using data to help build relationships. But as organizations start planning now for their year-end campaigns, it would be wise to review how gathered data is telling us a story and how to utilize the data to achieve fundraising and marketing success.

Those aren’t just numbers

The data your organization possesses tells a story. You had an uptick in donations in 2020. Why? Were certain donation opportunities more popular than others? Did fundraising events do better or worse than 2019? What was your retention rate? How did new donors find out about you?

The answers to the above and many more questions can hopefully be found in your CRM. (Or for some of you on Excel spreadsheets. But that’s a discussion for a different post.)

Quick example: In 2019, 1,000 people became first-time donors to your organization. Awesome! But in 2020, only 400 gave again. As a fundraiser, you have quite a pit in your budget to fill.

However, your job is not only to concentrate time and attention on acquiring new donors, while simply ignoring the 600 you failed to retain. Your job is to investigate why they stopped giving! The data is telling you a story. Now you have to fill in the holes. 

Collecting data to let it catch dust is pointless. Utilize the data you have at your disposal to build more relationships, raise more money and help more people in your community.

Conclusions from a phone call

Back to the call I received last week. A few conclusions as it relates to data.

Data hygiene: Clean up your data! If I haven’t volunteered for your organization in nine years, I should be deleted from your database. There’s no reason staff or volunteers should be spending their time calling me. Start by focusing on lapsed donors and volunteers from the last 1-3 years.

The same applies to your email fundraising and marketing. If a subscriber hasn’t opened your emails in the last six months, consider removing their address from your list. They are telling you they’re not interested in the content you’re producing.

Additionally, low open rates hurt your overall email efforts. Gmail and other Email Service Providers (ESP) are checking to see how many subscribers are opening your organizational emails. If the rate is low, they start to wonder why. Maybe subscribers consider your emails to be spam? ESP’s may then follow suit and categorize all emails you send as spam, whether subscribers previously opened them or not.

I suggest cleaning your email list once a month where possible or at the very least every quarter.

Who’s a prospect: Your boss may think that your donor target audience is anyone and everyone. You know better. That attitude will hurt your fundraising.

You have to be smart with allocating time and resources. This means getting to know your donors. After all, fundraising is all about building relationships!

Your data will help you identify who is and who is not a donor prospect or a potential volunteer. Someone hasn’t donated in nine years? Remove them from the database. Stop mailing them every December. Concentrate on prospects where you have a fighting chance.

Find out why: Remember the example above, where an organization retained only 40% of its first-time donors? Find out why!

Contact those former donors. Learn why they didn’t donate in 2020. This may lead to unpleasant and tough conversations but what you’ll hear will be revealing and extremely valuable. You could find out that your processes, systems, fundraising and marketing strategy are flawed. Wouldn’t it be better to know than to simply ignore it? 

The same goes for lapsed volunteers. If someone informs you they’re stopping to volunteer, conduct an exit interview. Ask what caused them to make this decision. Find out what they enjoyed most about volunteering. Ask if it would be ok to contact them in 6-12 months about coming back. 

Make sure their answers are entered into your database. When the next fundraiser comes along, they’ll already know who in your database to concentrate on. Speaking of which…

Turnover: Fundraisers change jobs on average every eighteen months. Clean data isn’t just about efficiency. Want to help the organization in the future, whether you’re there or not? If you believe in the mission, then you want the long-term health of the data to be strong.

I didn’t hang up

I try to be courteous and cordial on the phone. When organization YYY called me, I listened to their pitch. I didn’t turn them down. However, I suspect that most people they were calling simply tuned out or hung up. When your database hasn’t been cleaned in a while, you can’t expect better.

After the call, I looked up this nonprofit online. They are doing AMAZING work for a population here in Israel that needs it. Big time. I’m not upset at this organization. But as a sector, we can and should do better.

There’s a story in the data you’ve collected and are collecting. Listen to it.

P.S. The woman who called me did not have my email in their database. (For the record, nine years ago I would’ve given them the same email address I still use today.) But she did have my cellphone number. I asked her to text me and I would text back with my email address so she could send me information.

It’s been a week and I have yet to receive the text.

Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps your nonprofit build more relationships, raise more money to help you service more people and have more impact in the community. 1832 partners with nonprofits to craft strategies which upgrade their online presence, boost their email marketing, improve their marketing collateral and strengthen their overall marketing and fundraising efforts. Ephraim is always happy to connect with nonprofit pros via Twitter, LinkedIn, his daily nonprofit newsletter or his weekly podcast.