Big data is making waves in the corporate world and being heralded as a game changer for the way companies do business. By analyzing datasets across organizations, sectors, customers, etc. companies (and nonprofits) can uncover trends and insights that can radically change the way they work. The rise of data visualizations, like infographics, are a symptom of the increasing use of big data. McKinsey & Co are proclamatory about the role of big data in the future of business – they even go so far as to say that big data is “the next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.” A pretty bold statement. So it must be something worth digging into for businesses and nonprofits alike.
Within the charity world, NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) are a good resource for figuring out how your can gather, analyze and act on big data for your organisation. This recent article of theirs on Big Data for Small Organizations is a good one getting started.
In this post I would like to go over what I see as three important areas for (big) data for nonprofits: donors, communications and productivity.
Gather as much data as possible. You can’t analyze data you don’t have. Nor will analysis work if the data you have is inconsistent or incomplete. So, figure out what things you want to capture and train everyone in the organization to do it in a consistent way. If you’re using a database to store all your donor information then that should be the go-to place for capturing everything you’re looking for. There are usually standard fields but also customizable fields to capture information that is more unique to your charity. Record as much as possible about your donors – think of how Amazon records your browsing and purchasing behaviour to recommend items to you, make your shopping experience pleasant and easy, and therefore ensure you buy more and more often.
For example, by analyzing gift information (which every nonprofit should record) you can start figuring out where things work well and where they need to improve. Do you have a high attrition rate (lots of donors stopping their gifts)? Are long-term donors increasing their giving? Is there a particular value donor (i.e. monthly, major gifts, etc.) who are under or over performing the average?
In terms of big data, donor information has the potential to stretch far beyond one single organization. A great example of how this is being applied right now, is Chronicle of Philanthropy’s How America Gives resource. It’s full of great information, and maps, of charitable giving by Americans by state, city, and neighbourhood.
The ways you can slice and dice this data are endless. It can reveal new information that is valuable to developing or rejigging your fundraising strategy.
Communications and engagement
Most nonprofits are now connecting with their stakeholders through multichannel communications – email, website, social media, events, phone, mail, etc. Research shows that multichannel communications improve giving and engagement, so every charity should be connecting with people in this way. But gathering and analyzing the data is the difficult part – with online comms being the easiest and offline being the most difficult.
The data challenge for nonprofits is to get a 360 view of how and why their constituents engage with the organization…and with each other. Which types of communications resonate with which supporters through what channels and at what times? How can you increase giving, improve response rates and grow your community?
Productivity and human resources
Understanding how staff are spending their time and how productive they are can also make big differences to your nonprofit’s strategy. Are you having too many internal meetings? Too much bureaucracy? Not enough training and development compared to other nonprofits?
Something I’ve started using recently is called Rescue Time. It’s a computer application that runs in the background when you’re working and keeps track of how you’re spending your time and rates you on your productivity. It keeps track of how much time you spend on email (neutral), how much time you’re writing documents, working on presentations and doing spreadsheets (very productive) and how much time you’re on social networking sites (unproductive…although that’s not always the case). Analyzing my productivity data in this way has enabled me to decide what I need to cut down on (email!) and where I need to focus more time (getting proposals, reports, and other documents completed).
How organizations manage their productivity is a important issue. I wouldn’t recommend, for example, making it mandatory for all staff to use Rescue Time and give the report info to their line manager. That would make it feel too draconian of a work environment. Rather, productivity needs to be more motivational and staff-driven. So, gathering and analyzing the data is one thing. How you act upon it is completely different matter.
In addition to the other places mentioned above, a couple places I visit regularly for info on big data are:
- Beth Kanter - often cited as the go-to expert for nonprofit technology issues, Beth has some great insights, examples and tips on how charities can use technology to improve their work
- Harvard Business Review have written extensively on the subject of big data, including some good, sober articles that warn of being over-reliant on data