Data Driven Fundraising Is on the Rise for Universities and Nonprofits

Taylor Corrado
Taylor Corrado



line-graphMany organizations and schools are catching on to the data craze in the fundraising departments. And with data comes analytics -- and analyzing all the information you're collecting. In a recent article by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, several nonprofits and universities shared their success using data, including Johns Hopkins University World Vision, CARE, and Boston College.

Both schools and nonprofits alike can use the power of data to increase their fundraising department's efficiency, and engage the most-likely donors effectively. Here's how.

Benefits of Data Driven Fundraising

To show you just how much data can improve your fundraising department, consider the following benefits:

Segmentation and Targeted Communication

This can be based on any data that you have collected, or will be collecting. This data will help you target different levels of givers from the bottom of your pyramid to the top with the right language and level of communication. The more targeted you can be with your communication, the more personal and engaging your message will be. 

Figure Out What Works and What Doesn’t

Since you’ll have data on each channel of your fundraising efforts, you’ll be able to see what is resulting in the most engagement and donations. If your paid search spend isn’t performing at a cost effective level, for instance, you'll have the data to support cutting back on that budget. You’ll also be able to define how often you should be communicating with your constituents via email.

Personalizing Increases Engagement

With the information you collect, you’ll be able to tailor your content to your different audiences, whether they're first time donors or long time major givers. The more personalized your email communication is, the more engagement you’ll see.

Find the Hidden Gems in Your Database

Without data, you may not know who you have in your database and what opportunities they present. Even if you already know who your solid base of big donors is, you may find that those that have given several smaller donations could actually convert into bigger donors in the near future. Being able to understand the interactions and activity of your constituents is important to find these treasures.

Realistic Goal Setting

Data can help your fundraising team set realistic goals and present them in a non-daunting way. You can figure out based on donor history and data exactly how many donations you need, from how many people, and at what levels. This will help with team morale (achieving a very large goal for a capital campaign is always fun), as well as when you report to your board on your progress and success. You will need to find the right analytics tools to do so, and staff your team with one or several data experts.

Common Data Mistakes 

Data driven communication and fundraising have endless benefits, but you do have to be careful to not be data reliant -- rather, be data informed. Here's what I mean.

Don’t abandon your internal networks.

Just because you’ve used your data to find new opportunities, don’t let them replace your existing networks -- including your board member’s connections. Data should not replace your networking skills, so make sure to keep those close to your leadership engaged with your organization, as they will probably be larger donors.

Don’t let data be your decision maker.

Data is very easy to manipulate and misunderstand, even for the most skilled analysts. Your data should support your assumptions and hypotheses, which requires critical, human interpretation. Make sure you have questions you are looking to answer with your data analysis, and use a keen eye to perform your assessment.

Make sure you know what your data means.

It’s one thing to collect a ton of information on your constituents, but if you don’t know what to do with your data or what it means to your fundraising and communication efforts, it won't do you any good. If you have not hired someone or found someone internally that is data literate, we highly recommend that you do so. Without an understanding of data, it will be useless to your efforts.

Sometimes, too much data is no good.

Yes, data can help you, but data can also hurt you. If you have too much data to sift through and no clear purpose of what you’re looking for, you can get lost in the weeds and waste time and money. Make sure you have a clear purpose of collecting and analyzing data and limit the scope of your project to not complicate your efforts.

Data-driven fundraising has been most successful for attracting, finding, and engaging big donors -- for both nonprofits and schools. If you understand you best major donors and their characteristics and demographics, you’ll be able to look for more of them in your constituent pool based on the data you are collecting. Creating a persona of your major donors will help you do this and scale to grow your major donor base.

Data Driven Success

As The Chronicle reported, many organizations and schools are adopting data-driven fundraising practices. Here are just a few:

John Hopkins University decided on what direct mail appeal to send for estate gifts based on analysis of past planned-gift donors. This brought in donation pledges of $4.7M.

World Vision also looked at which donors should receive direct mail based on their past giving history. This resulted in them actually sending less direct mailers. “If you know that by mailing 50% of the mail, you can get 90% of the income, why would you want to mail 100% just to get [the remaining] 10%?” says Lisa Pang, a senior director at the international aid group.

World Vision also used data to cut their late night television commercials. They found that even though response was high and cost effective, they compared it to the amount the donors gave over time and found that those that came from late night ads were more likely to cancel their child sponsorships and gave less in the end. They moved their ads to the more expensive day time slot.

Boston College uses data to help their major-gift fundraisers get started faster, and to help them decide where to send staff members to engage these donors based on their level of experience.

How has your fundraising team used data to drive your campaigns?

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