Data That Can’t Be Dumbed Down

By Jen Filla

Our donors and constituents are talking to us through data trails created from actions such as making gifts, liking our Facebook pages, and attending our events. So why aren’t we using that information? An elite few organizations are. The University of Maryland University College did it so well that they’ve birthed a new company, HelioCampus, to sell the expertise.

And yet this leaves millions, especially non-higher education nonprofits, out in the cold. There should be something for the hard-working, scrapping and scrambling, but not so big nonprofits, right? And, in this age of the internet, of course there is.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute are the lead sponsors of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP). The FEP created a free spreadsheet to make it “easy” for nonprofits to track key performance metrics such as donor acquisition and retention.

But it wasn’t easy enough.

So MarketSmart created the Fundraising Report Card, which is beautiful in simplicity and design. All you have to do is drop your file to upload and it creates interactive, shareable charts that will make your data-loving heart melt on the spot. And all this with only three anonymous, required fields to export from your donor database: Unique ID, Gift Amount, and Gift Date.

But that is still NOT enough. Why?

Because at the heart of the matter is a core skill set that can’t be dumbed-down. It just can’t. Someone has to understand the database and the data well enough to pull the file.

Sure, the intelligent, highly educated prospect research professionals reading this might consider this ridiculous. The export file of all gifts in a particular time period is SUPER simple to pull. But for more nonprofits and individuals than you might imagine, it is not simple at all. Sometimes it is a cumbersome, ill-designed database to blame. Sometimes it’s not.

Eventually artificial intelligence will take over, but until then nonprofits need staff who can understand why the relational database was such a transformative invention as well as why it can make exporting a simple gift file so tricky.

I would even argue that a fundamental understanding of (a) how data is stored; (b) how data can be manipulated in a spreadsheet to describe, compare, and predict; and (c) how to turn the spreadsheet into meaningful takeaways and actions should be de rigueur for all fundraising staff, but especially prospect research and advancement services.

Then again, I helped to develop the Prospect Research Institute’s Foundations in Fundraising Analytics course. I might be biased.

2 thoughts on “Data That Can’t Be Dumbed Down

  1. This is so true. We hear it all the time.

    Fundraisers say, “The data is cool. The reports are interesting. But what should I do going forward?”

    Meaningful takeaways are the key!

    1. Indeed! And we’ve been waiting for artificial intelligence to dazzle us for at least a decade…

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