Research for the Future
Many fundraisers can point to specific successes that are a result of doing research and applying the findings to create a new program or refine an existing strategy. While surveys are still used for many research efforts (and are easy to create and tabulate online using tools like SurveyMonkey), I had an opportunity to probe 21st century research for nonprofits with Dave Goetz, president of CZ Strategy, a marketing firm that helps organizations make sense of their data and then implement messaging and communication changes based on the findings. I was intrigued by some new thinking on approaching research as Goetz shared some helpful advice for all of us desiring to know our donors and members better, so we can be more effective at recruiting, retaining and renewing these supporters. Following are Dave’s thoughts on how nonprofit leadership can revolutionize their fundraising and marketing by asking the right questions when it comes to research.
When Is the Best Time for a Nonprofit to Undertake Research?
We often think of doing research when there is a crisis, but one of the best times is when you aren’t in emergency mode. By conducting research without the panic that often accompanies a crisis, you can strategically refocus your outreach efforts and reallocate your resources for better results. The reality is that research often shows that what is holding you back isn’t what you think; it’s actually another issue or a constellation of issues. It’s always more complicated than you think.
Research can be especially helpful when a new executive director comes on board. The findings can help your organization’s leadership understand your current positioning in the minds of your donors and whether your various constituent groups truly understand what you do and your distinctives as a nonprofit.
If I were a new executive director, I would want to know if there is a gap between what we say is true on our web site and in our general message—and reality, how we’re perceived by our donors.
What Data Should We Pay Attention to?
We all know that we have financial data, email metrics, geographic data, etc. We have static, demographic data and even wealth screening data. We have behavioral data like memberships and gift renewals.
But there is also “perceptual data”—that which exists only in the minds of donors, board members, employees, members and others. Sometimes perception is the single most important signal that we need to understand.
For example, there may be a disconnect between board thinking and staff thinking. There may be a gap between your message (what your outbound communications trumpet) and the “reality” your donor interprets from that message. Perceptual research can help identify the gaps so you can begin closing them.
What’s the Most Important Question to Ask Before We Begin Research?
It’s very basic: “What do we really want to know?”
This is not a technical question. Write down what you want to know in plain English—in a single sentence. The follow-up question is: “Why is that important?”
Once you do that, then you can think about what kind of data to collect to get to the answer.
What Mistakes Are Common When Approaching a Research Project?
The biggest mistake is to do the project, and then do nothing with the findings. Data are just data. It can’t save you from an aging mission or give you a fresh strategy. It can show you trends you need to be aware of. With all research findings, you have to make the jump between what the data says and what strategies you should pursue to act on it.
Research can give you insight, but the findings must be translated into actionable deliverables or behaviors. If you aren’t serious about the research and have the will to implement it, don’t do the project research. It’s not worth the investment of time and money.
Another mistake is to treat donors like data points—they are not. They are human beings—people with hopes, dreams and a vision for their lives. We need to focus on our prospects and donors as individuals, not just on the trendlines or as “brand personas.”
What Software Does Our Nonprofit Need Before It Can Do Research?
Every research project starts with a data set or multiple data sets. You want tools that allow you to build meaningful profiles of your constituents. So when it comes time for research, you can pull a clean list for the project.
I tend to recommend software that is cloud-based—simple to implement and allows organizations to customize it easily. The bigger issue is identifying, training and supporting someone on the team to do the tedious work of maintaining the data in a systematic way so that it can be analyzed for decision-making.
What Is the Most Important Step to Making Research Useful to Our Nonprofit?
I think it begins with the right view of what research can do for the organization.
We all want the silver bullet when we set out to research our constituents. Often, though, the results are much more mundane. I like to say that much of research confirms what you already know, perhaps 80 percent of it. The next 10 percent may give you an “ah-ha” moment—an insight that helps you make a connection. And then there are times (the final 10 percent), you discover a shocker: “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
Too often, we’re looking only for the big insight. But confirming what we already know is important, too.
Can You Give an Example of How a Nonprofit Used Research?
A university in a major urban area was investing in national outreach efforts to attract graduate students. We pulled their enrollment data for the past five years and identified four or five predictors of enrollment. The top predictor? It was geography—80 to 85 percent of their students lived within 30 miles of the school. Research allowed them to put a frame around their marketing and see the current reality. As a result, they changed their marketing budget, focused their resources more locally, creating a new plan to grow their enrollment.
Another finding was that the students perceived the school in a different way than the faculty did. The experience that the faculty created for the students was not the reality they wanted students to perceive. The bottom line for this school was that if they wanted a different type of student, they would need to create a different experience. And that is not easy to do. That requires a lot of organizational reflection and change.
Dave summed up his comments by talking about a major donor who told him, “The people who come to us for money are just not curious about me.” Done right, research helps us show our donors that we truly care about them. What every fundraiser needs to remember is that while it’s important to collect and manage data and do research on it, it is wrong to use the findings to reduce your donors to a trendline. Research does not replace personal relationships and a genuine interest in each donor in his or her own right.
Pamela consults with nonprofits, helping them develop their fundraising strategy and writing copy to achieve their goals. Additionally, she teaches fundraising at two universities, hoping to inspire the next generation of fundraisers to be passionate about the profession. Previously, Pamela led the fundraising programs for nonprofit organizations. Pamela is a member of the Advisory Panel for Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, a CFRE, a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and Dominican University, and holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from California Southern University. Contact Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @pjbarden.