The Data-Driven Nonprofit
May 11 2021
If you were asked "What is the most important thing you need to prioritize, today?", would you feel immediately prepared to answer? How about "This week?", "This month?", "This year?", or "Over the next 3-5 years?"
What about bigger-picture questions?
- What are our fundraising forecasts and potential strategies?
- How do our programs truly affect recipients over the long-term, both positively and negatively?
- What unforseen consequences of decisions and processes may we be missing?
- What are the real, but less-than-obvious trends and risks?
- What tangential paths are we overlooking that could have massive implications?
Many leaders' tendency (mine included!) is to over-focus on the day-to-day, reactively in firefighting mode, instead of proactively taking a step back and analyzing reality. In the back of your mind, the phrase "there must be another way" is frequently heard. It would be great if we could anticipate and steer accordingly, instead of feeling "ad-hoc" every. single. Day.
Data, Data, Data!
There's a saying that "non-tech companies no longer exist." Arguably, the same applies to nonprofits. What's more, we are at a point in time where being data-focused is a must, otherwise organizations miss the forest for the trees. It's a complex and tightly connected world, affecting everything from your donor base to your mission field.
You're probably tired of hearing "Track as much data as you can!" That's old news. If you already have a deep mix of data, great! You're already on the right track. But, often we see the set deeply segmented in a variety of platforms:
- Case management and current program operations
- Connections to other partner organizations and service providers
- Donor and donation info
- Volunteer management
- Analytics from email, text messaging, and social media campaigns
- In-office projects and processes
- Super specific data points being tracked for a grant or campaign
- 10-1,000 different spreadsheets
But collecting and housing data points is only a small part of the battle. When it's segmented and spread across several different buckets, the ability to analyze something specific you're looking for is (at best) manual and extremely tedious. At worst, it's impossible to discover the non-obvious, hidden gems.
Connect The Dots
The most important goal is unification. There is no such thing as an isolated data point. Everything is connected and relational, frequently in non-obvious ways. We're big fans of research and books like Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner) and Outliers (Gladwell), which focus on exactly this. Root causes and correlations often seem obvious, but seemingly-unrelated data often have massive implications and consequences. If discovered and frequently monitored, the net result can be a huge win to your mission.
What does that look like in practice? A great place to start is unifying and aggregating data into a case management, CRM, or relational database. That at least gets things under a single roof. More importantly, it allows you to start building connections and relationships between it all.
Next, automation is key! These days, almost all platforms have a variety of APIs, plugins, connectors, etc. available (and if yours does not, we'd highly recommend alternatives!). Just like any other form of habit building, if you have to remember to do it, it likely won't get done over time.
The database and automations are often described as a "hub and spoke pattern". Position a database as your central source-of-truth, then automatically feed it data from other platforms (payment gateways, communication tools, data entry, etc). Don't allow any of those "spokes" to be overused as a database in and of themselves. The single point of truth is vital. Everything else is a dumb pipeline.
Then, focus on visualizations, especially when historical analysis is required. Graphs, charts, dashboards, etc. will inform staff, board members, and grant committees several times more effectively than lists of metrics. A picture is worth a thousand words!
Most importantly, don't reinvent the wheel! Data management, visualization, and "business intelligence" are crowded marketplaces with many well-thought-out platforms. And definitely don't limit yourself to nonprofit-focused vendors, as many of them will underdeliver compared to what's already available in the commercial realm. Some CRM and database vendors have report, graph, and dashboard generators baked right into the platform. Other tools, like Google Data Studio or Tableau, allow you to do the same through connections to a variety of sources.
At the end of the day, none of this is purely about efficiencies, processes, or metrics. It's a means to more effectively impact the world!
(As a side note, we'd currently recommend ignoring the noise about machine learning and artificial intelligence. Although the ecosystem is nearing a point where it could be extremely useful, continue to trust your intuition. You're in your mission field for a reason -- you're the expert. What we're describing should not be seen as an attempt to automate that! Rather, it's an attempt to arm yourself with a clear picture of the current state of the mission field, along with where things are headed.)