I had the pleasure of serving on a panel at the Northwest Development Officers Association annual winter conference in Seattle, WA. The panel discussion, titled Data Drives All, was about data and how nonprofits can use data effectively and how they can avoid some of the pitfalls that come from the torrent of data coming at us every day. I had 3 key take-aways from the discussion.
#1: To obtain data is to maintain data.
This useful mantra is courtesy of Michele Jackson who is an IT and process improvement consultant and has worked with many nonprofits. Michele made the point is that many organizations like to be ambitious when it comes to designing their database and all the fields they hope to populate. But in too many cases, it’s too difficult or not valuable enough to keep up with the data. If you want to store the employer names of your constituents’ spouses, then you had better figure out how you’re going to keep that data up-to-date. What good is stale data? Having stale and incorrect data could be harmful if it works its way into a form letter, for instance.
#2: Some of the most valuable data is sitting between two ears.
Several panelists talked about the importance of interviewing the executive director and staff members to find out what they know and to understand how they use the data they’re collecting. Often the executive director or CEO of an organization has terrific information, but how often does that make its way into a database where others can access it? And when it comes to restructuring a database, it’s critically important to understand how people use the data and to get them on board with any proposed changes. The whole organization should buy into what the rules are for entering data and how the data will be used. One audience member asked a critical question about how you can encourage board members and other leaders to enter information that might be sensitive in nature. A good database should allow you to store contact reports so only the author can access them and limit views of financial information to those who need to see it.
#3: Our guts are worthless.
I got this gem from some blog articles quoting an Obama campaigner as saying, “We basically found our guts were worthless” (Harvard Business Review). The Obama campaign tested everything and found that many times the email subject line that worked best was not the one they would have expected. The same is true for ask letters. One nonprofit said they had always included the $10,000 giving amount on their pledge form because conventional wisdom says it will increase the contributions for everybody. But, when they tested it, they found the opposite to be true. Test your assumptions and measure your results. Amazon.com does this all the time. Whenever they send out emails to a target population, they hold back a random 10% as a control group, so they can measure the impact of the email.
The panelists put together a handout with lots of great material: a survey organizations can use to assess their data needs, practical tips on how to streamline your data collection and data management, a guideline for organizing gifts and segmenting constituents, and a resource page.