A Strategy for Data

by Deron J. Tse of DjT systems: Business Systems Consulting

We make data-based decisions.

What does that mean for your nonprofit? You collect data on your constituents usually starting off with required transactional data points like contact info and transaction amount. Your organization might then graduate to collecting other useful data such as demographics, volunteer participation, donation history, etc.

In time, this data collection grows quickly. Add staff turnover with no documentation and you end up with a complicated mess that you don’t know what to do with.

Your nonprofit needs to ask Why, What, and How to have an effective data strategy.

Why collect data?

Data can provide you a 360-degree view of your constituent. Everything from transaction history to volunteer history to program participation gives you a fuller picture of your constituent. Imagine what you might do if you understood your audience better.

When collecting data, it’s very important to ask yourself WHY you are collecting each data point. Unfortunately, for a lot of organizations, a significant portion of their data falls under nice to have or we’ve always done it that way.

For instance, I worked with a nonprofit that recorded age of program participants. In of itself, it seems normal, but when you realize the program is directed at Junior High kids, the age doesn’t matter. This is a data point that will never be actionable.

What data do you collect?

Don’t spend time collecting nice to have or we’ve always done it that way data points. Collect only the data that matters which is usually judged through the lens of what’s actionable. Can you draw strategic insight from these data points and develop tactics to fulfill that strategy? 

Clearly outline the data you must collect (transactional and regulatory). Then think about the outcomes your nonprofit is trying to achieve. From there use backcasting to work your way back from outcome to data points. By drawing a line from outcome back to data points, you clearly show why this data matters and while doing so, you start to see WHAT additional data you need.

How do you collect your data?

There are many web-based services that can collect data. Everything from web forms to Google Analytics to Buffer with social media to FundraiseUp for fundraising campaigns. These are merely tools but after defining why and what you collect, you need to then ask HOW you collect that data. Think in broad terms such as online, traditional, or in-person.

If you’re collecting online, that leads to asking about audience segmentation and even time of day or workday vs. weekend. If you’re using traditional options such as letters or postcards, then you consider materials such as coated and uncoated stock, paper/card weight and of course mailing costs. An in-person event has many more variables with the message of the Ask reflective of what you may be doing both online and traditional.

The messaging of your Ask is most effective when tailored for the audience and the communication medium. By broadly understanding what channels you’re using to gather data, you can then make specific decisions on what to tool, materials, or message to use best.

Where to put all that data?

Traditional databases like Microsoft Access to CRMs like Salesforce Nonprofit Cloud or Neon CRM and even hybrids like AirTable are places where you can store that data. As a business systems consultant, I find that most small businesses has the best overall ROI using a CRM service.

A Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) system is, at its core, a contact list not unlike your cell phone’s contact list. Where it pays off is in all the other types of data you might want to store about a donor.

On the backend, a CRM uses a database but unlike a traditional database, you interact with an easier interface. There’s no need to apply SQL queries or figure out primary keys for each table. Just like your phone, you see what you need as fields on a page.

This increases user adoption which leads to greater ROI on your CRM investment. The real power is in creating asingle source of truth about your donor. From the CRM, not only fundraisers but marketers, program managers, and volunteer managers can collect data on their specific responsibility.

Taken together, the CRM creates a 360-degree view of your donors. You can tailor your Ask easier if you know not just their donation history but also volunteer history, program participation and even responses to Surveys. Your Ask will have that much more meaning because it will come across as tailored just for them and not a faceless audience segment.

Drawing Strategic Insights

Complementing this data collection is the expectation of how you can see your data. It’s all well and good if you collect data but if it’s not presented in a clear manner, the likelihood of drawing useful observations winds down to zero.

To be clear, data in of itself does not provide insight. People draw insight and hopefully on both accurate and relevant data presented to them. Data alone cannot do your thinking for you.

Present your data clearly which involves both simplicity and accuracy. Never clutter your reports and dashboard with too many data points or show graphs that aren’t comparing apples to apples. Make it easy for viewers to understand what they’re seeing so they can then draw strategic insights from which your nonprofit can develop tactics.

In these volatile, uncertain, complicated, and ambiguous times, your org needs to stay nimble to remain relevant and effective. Effective data collection and management is essential to informing your strategic direction and decisions.

If you have questions, feel free to reach out to me. I am available for a free 1-hr. initial consult on creating or improving a business system that works for you.

About the Author

 Deron Tse is a Business Systems Consultant with a specialty in Salesforce. He helps small business solve the problem of what to do with their customer data. Using CRM services and integrations, he assists small businesses with providing extraordinary customer experiences.

 He holds a Certificate in Sustainable Community Development from Colorado State University and previously worked at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits as Technology Coordinator. He believes people can flourish best when they flourish together. 


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