The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Quick-Start Guide to Data Success for Nonprofits

All organizations generate a lot of data. The challenge is knowing what to do with it—and what it can do for you. From gathering to reporting, this quick primer will help you get started transforming raw data into insights that will help your nonprofit be more strategic.

Data Graphic

Nonprofit data fits into four general categories:

  • Financial and internal operations data: Think basic metrics like cash on hand, expenses, volunteer hours, and staff training. These are crucial for budgeting and making program decisions.
  • Marketing, communications, and fundraising data: Also called “outreach” data—how many people signed up for your newsletter, or the number of new donors from your latest campaign.
  • Program data: Arguably the most crucial for articulating the effectiveness of your mission, this includes things like the number of clients your organization served and the outcomes of that service.
  • External data: Just like it sounds, external data comes from sources other than your organization, like the Census Bureau or private research firms.

Lots of options, right? And you probably have limited resources. Here’s how to narrow down which data you collect so you can get the most bang for your buck.

Focus on data that helps you answer important questions.

Before you begin gathering numbers, decide what you want to know. Be specific. Instead of a broad-ranging question—“Is Facebook really working for us?”—ask one that requires specific answers: “What tangible results are we getting from Facebook?” The data could be engagements per post type, new likes over time, or donations resulting from specific types of status updates. Your analysis might show, for instance, that you aren’t getting much from Facebook, but you might also learn that your organization isn’t putting much into it.

Beware of “it would be interesting to know…”

If you don’t have a plan to use a certain type of data, it might not be worth going down lots of little rabbit holes. It’s easy to get carried away with gathering lots of data out of free-ranging curiosity. Focus on answering those specific, measurable questions we just talked about.

Now that you’ve clarified your questions, it’s time to collect the data to answer them. These tips will get you started.

Get buy-in from your team.

You’ll probably depend on other people to help collect data. The key is helping them understand how it will benefit them—and that it won’t just be extra work. Here’s a great example of how data analysis helps your team target its efforts where they’re effective and skip where they aren’t.

  1. How many people is your team meeting at outreach events?
  2. Of those, how many are signing up for your newsletter?
  3. Of that second group, how many are further engaging in some form, like volunteering or donating?
  4. The events generating the most people in Question 3 are the ones your team should focus on. They can skip events with the lowest numbers.

Appoint a data czar.

Find the person who likes to run numbers and is good at Excel. The data might live in lots of places and be viewed by lots of people, but that one person collects it and helps explain it to the rest of the team.

Start small, but with big impact.

If your nonprofit is shifting to being more data informed, address resistance by looking at specific key questions your group is facing and finding data to answer them.

Let’s say you want to increase fundraising from individual donors but don’t know who is the most effective target. Break down one year of donor records by how they originally made contact with your organization: Maybe some participated in programs (we’ll call them “alumni”), others signed up for your e-newsletter, and others are on your board. Your data shows that alumni are giving much higher average gifts—almost double—but fewer are actually giving. You make a small shift in communications and ask alumni to give using language that reflects their relationship with you. This results in more alumni making donations because now they feel engaged and part of the community.

A really simple piece of data analysis can have a big impact.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

In some ways, you’ll never know the full impact of your programs, but you can know how you’re doing along the way. Six months after a training, for example, call people and ask what they learned and if they made any changes because of it. You might not be able to call everyone, but you (or an intern) could call 20% or 60% of them. You can look at just a few pieces of data that will move you toward a better understanding of your impact.

Record your method for Future You.

When you go back to collect and report on the same type of data months or even years later, odds are you won’t remember how you did it. Write down your method in simple language so you—or someone else—can replicate it later and generate data that you feel confident comparing over time.

Adapted from Network for Good’s Nonprofit 911 webinar “Data Management Strategies to Maximize Your Success” with Heather Yandow from Third Space Studio. Download the complete webinar here.

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About This Blog

Linda Lombardi

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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