The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

A First Date with Data

A First Date with DataShe goes by many names—Data Analytics, Big Data, Data Visualization. Data is a decision maker, and a knowledge powerhouse. She is a techie, speaks in code (Python, anyone?), and is revered by every sector in town.

But for many nonprofits, particularly those that are resource-strapped or were born before the technology and data revolution (no judgment here—I still don't understand Snapchat), Data is intimidating and seems unattainable. This is your simple guide to overcoming insecurity, breaking the ice, and forming an enduring bond with Data.

The First Date

Prioritizing and staying focused will keep you from getting overwhelmed by the world of Data. Identify and prioritize how you want to engage with Data. Is it to:

  • evaluate the effectiveness of your programs
  • test different advertising strategies to maximize efficiency
  • demonstrate the impact of your work
  • better understand your funder base and behavior
  • understand your differentiators in a crowded field, or
  • help make the case for why funders should support you?

Once you clarify your needs, identify a few metrics that are most relevant and will effectively meet those needs. For the development team, this could mean calculating the cost to raise a dollar, donor renewal and retention rates, and mapping your peer organizations' donor pool to surface trends and untapped funding sources.

The Courtship

Becoming more sophisticated and savvy when it comes to Data doesn't mean you have to completely overhaul your systems. Once you define your needs and data points, there are many user-friendly tools that can be used to collect, analyze, and visualize data. There are platforms, like CauseIQ, that generate information on your nonprofit competition instantaneously. Tableau can be used to organize and present data for visual impact. Platforms like Google Analytics, Facebook Ads, and Twitter Analytics also provide free tools that can help you determine which audiences are responding best to your organization's online content.

In the time it takes to ask, "So, how's it going with Data?!" you can coolly provide updates using a dashboard. Dashboards are fantastic management and communication tools that can provide staff, board members, and funders with a snapshot of your progress toward programmatic and revenue goals. There's no reason not to try it out!

First steps? Basic training in Microsoft Excel is a must. If you want to delve deeper into Data, organizations like General Assembly offer more in-depth courses in data science and analytics. Once you are hooked, try out Zoho Reports iDashboard, or Domo Reports for some snazzy and constantly updated graphics. We recommend that every nonprofit adopt this best practice.

A growing number of individuals and firms specialize in data analytics and can help you navigate the courtship period. An internal staff person with the adequate time and training is a cost-effective option. However, Data loves accuracy and consistency. GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) is a pet peeve. Ensure that whomever you tap to help navigate this terrain is aware of these likes and dislikes, and has the training needed to make sure your data is clean, and to keep it clean.

The Commitment

Your relationship with Data will grow and evolve as you become more comfortable with one another. The benefits of committing to Data in the long term are numerous. Data will keep you honest, help you be more efficient and impactful, and make you shine in a sea of nonprofits competing for the same dollars.

So, go ahead and ask for a first date. You will not regret it.

A First Date with DataThis post is reproduced with permission from the April 2018 Orr Associates, Inc. (OAI), newsletter. Ana Canning is a senior associate director with OAI, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits fundraise more successfully through a business orientation to problem solving, a metrics focus, and an outcomes-driven perspective.

Topics: Nonprofits and Data Getting Started with Data