Corner Office: Big Data and Analytics for Nonprofits
Data has long been at the heart of direct marketing. In the nonprofit world, data allowed us to rent lists of people who had shown a propensity toward giving to causes similar to ours. On the cultivation side, data permitted us to choose which donors to mail based upon previous history and tailor messages to their interests. This smart use of data let us provide donors what they wanted rather than cluttering up their mailboxes with irrelevant offers. And it allowed nonprofits to raise more dollars at a lower cost to more efficiently and effectively feed hungry children, cure life-threatening cancer and support our wounded veterans.
In the current millennium, "Big Data" has become a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, often without a healthy sense of its emerging place in shaping strategy and designing good tactics. Big Data has been defined by author Thomas H. Davenport as "vast volumes of unstructured, fast-moving data from many resources."
But just the adjectives "vast," "unstructured" and "fast-moving" tend to convey a sense of hopeless randomness, an entity not even entirely safe, let alone useful. Perhaps for this reason, among others, the nonprofit world has fallen behind in applying data to marketing programs. In doing so, we have left valuable information about our donors on the table and watched the for-profit world take advantage of efficiencies we can only dream of.
In reality, data and analytics are just another expression of storytelling, one that helps draw a picture of how best to approach and elicit responses from your audience. And data is no longer just an add-on or a window dressing in the fundraising world; it's a foundational and essential building block for success.
When used appropriately and masterfully, data is much more than endless strings of numbers … it becomes the container for urgent, compelling and sometimes quite personal information about your donor. And analytics is the process by which those numbers become a valuable story, guiding your action and your investments.
Tom Harrison is the former chair of Russ Reid and Omnicom's Nonprofit Group of Agencies. He served as chair of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.