Clear Communication Key to Get the Information You're Looking For
Fundraisers thrive on information: What is our donor-retention performance this year? Which kind of donor acquisition provided the best long-term ROI? What moves one-time donors to recurring givers? When it comes to technology, one of the most common complaints from fundraisers goes along the lines of, “I can’t get the information I need from our donor database.”
That’s quite an impediment when you need the information from yesterday to do a good job today. And it doesn’t seem to be the fault of one fundraising software package or another — I’ve heard similar complaints from users of many systems. Some have even gone down the expensive route of changing their software to solve the problem. In some cases, this may be justified, but usually the solution requires not so much the investment of money, but clear communication.
Fundraising software usually comes with a number of canned reports including LYBUNT, SYBUNT and Pareto’s Analysis to name a few. These reports may provide information you need, but they're unlikely to give you everything that relates to the way you do things in your organization. You probably have an additional software package — report-writer software — with which to write your own reports. I have seen many organizations send the wrong staff members on technical report-writing courses in the hope that they would be able to create complex reports for themselves. This is a great idea in prospect, but you need someone with a pretty rare combination of skills to be able to (a) interpret the business requirements — a business skill — and (b) write the reports — a technical skill. Sadly, many nonprofits have wasted time and money that way.
This is where you need to work with someone with business and technical skills, typically your software vendor, to create the reports you need. You must communicate the requirements, and the vendor will interpret the requirements and use its technical skills to create the reports you need so you can run them anytime you want. Yes, there is a little investment here, but bad or missing information will cost you much more in the long term.
However, this advice comes with a warning: There is a vital communication step in this process that many organizations and vendors miss. That is to make sure the vendor gets a clear, unambiguous understanding of what you mean, even when you use familiar fundraising jargon. You may think you have been clear, but unfortunately the terms are not yet universally understood or applied in the fundraising world. And there is a danger that you and the vendor will have different assumptions of the meaning of the same concept — which could result in misleading information, leading to bad decisions.
For example, I have heard the term lifetime value to mean either the total sum of a donor’s contributions from the time she first connected with the organization, or the sum of the expected value of a donor’s gifts in the next five years, discounted year on year by the anticipated attrition rate and the effect of inflation. These are not the same things! We see this with other widely used terms in fundraising, such as ROI and retention.
It may seem obvious to you, but if you want good information, you should be explicit about your requirements. Then they can be written into the reports your system produces. The reward is that from that point forward you will get exactly the information you meant to get, which isn’t always the same as what the vendor first understood you to mean!
Robin Fisk is a senior charity technology specialist at Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit software provider Advanced Solutions International (ASI).