Defanging The Data Monster For Good

While Facebook and other global behemoths have long understood the power of data, the recent breaches and unlawful use of personal information have reminded them (and us) that their understanding is incomplete. 

Nonprofits are just discovering the power of data, and because they are not immune to troubles, they must learn from these recent events. Keeping in line with people’s best interests is part of their DNA. The charitable sector has been regulated by federal law since the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 and without the billion-dollar marketing budgets of friends in corporate America, nonprofit organizations struggle with data integrity, not handling their data with integrity.

Data may get a bad rep these days, but it’s an inherent part of our culture. Beginning with cave people making notches on bones to account for events, everyone from the Census Bureau to kids running for middle school student council president use it. But learning how to use it for the customer’s benefit is the real trick. Whether or not data breaches at Facebook are watershed moments remain to be seen. But what is for certain is that nonprofits have to embrace data in ways not previously imagined.



Nonprofits have an unprecedented opportunity: to leverage sophisticated data science to reach the lifeblood of their organizations: donors. Donors don’t receive goods, but they interact with the organization to do good. With nearly 2.5 quintillion bytes of data produced in the U.S. (according to IBM) every day, nonprofits need to understand what needle in what haystack will further their mission. Therein lies the opportunity for data analytics.

It’s easy to defang data when it’s viewed as the connective tissue between important causes and change makers. Rather than looking at data as a complex science, consider it a way to build stronger connections with donors. Nonprofit marketing campaigns aim to do as much good as they can by targeting donors in the way they deserve. And while the emotional connection is paramount, the addition of analytics will actually help to define the best course of action.

And based on the available data, it is possible to dramatically improve the quality, as well as the speed, of those decisions. The result is maximizing fundraising efforts and minimizing wasted solicitations (nothing is worse than an inaccurate face-to-face donation request.)

For as long as charities have existed, mailing lists have served as a conduit to the donor base. Some organizations are diligent about deleting duplicate names, updating addresses and entering new connections. But few are maintaining their lists for accuracy. That is, maintaining interest accuracy.

For example, your development team is on top of a name change if someone gets married, or an email address update if they change jobs. But what if they have a change of heart about the organization? What if where once they had a passion for your mission, they now may have other interests or, even better, a deepened interest in the work of your organization? They could have evolved into a larger prospect than the database will reveal. How are you tracking that?

Implementing rigorous data analytics as part of fundraising will capture opportunities to grow everything from a scholarship endowment to elevating capital improvements to delivering a mission to more people. It’s a powerful opportunity. To capture it without peril, nonprofits would be wise to put guidelines in place around their data.

Action as simple as inserting language about data integrity into The National Council of Nonprofits Code of Ethics would ensure donors and fundraisers feel safe in carrying out their good work.

2 comments about "Defanging The Data Monster For Good".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, April 18, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

    Jennifer, thanks for the engaging article.  In my experience with non-profits, I've noticed that often there is a talent shortage (people skilled in analytics) and a set of board members that seem stuck to "tried and true" methods (read that as status quo). Your thoughts?

    On the NCN Code of Ethics.  I'm not sure donors are going to dive into reading that but might respond positively to a badge or statement noting "we follow the ...Code."

  2. Jennifer Rignani from Jennifer Rignani Freelance replied, April 18, 2018 at 8:31 a.m.

    Excellent point. Data analytics skills within the walls of a nonprofit are still rare, but I think the larger organizations realize that outsourcing that need is critical and easier done than even a couple years ago. Demonstrating the value of insight to a donor journey can be done using one fundraising campaign cycle or event using data already on hand - just need to know how to make that data work hard. In my former life as a nonprofit development leader, I wish I had access to the people and tools available today!”

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