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Using Data to Drive Decision Making: 4 Donor Relations Activities to Start Evaluating Now



By now you’ve probably heard the directive from your leadership to “show me the data on that.” From allocating budgets to defining operating plans, more and more of our organizational decisions are relying on proof of past success, not just belief in a good idea. In fact, for the past decade or more, most development shops have become more sophisticated in using data to drive their fundraising efforts – from utilizing prospect research to setting campaign goals. Many organizations have implemented metrics for their frontline fundraisers to set goals and evaluate achievement. This has allowed organizations to be more thoughtful and strategic about how fundraisers spend their time.


Most fundraisers in larger nonprofits are no longer required to do it all – other expertise has been tapped to develop the newsletter, plan the event, and generate the thank you. Instead, frontline fundraisers are expected to focus on their metrics, raise money and build meaningful, long-lasting relationships with donors. Meanwhile, much of the other work designed to support those goals has been redistributed and, in many cases – for better or worse – now resides in donor relations shops.

To avoid becoming the “junk drawer” of our fundraising shop, an important question to ask ourselves is: does this project or problem belong in donor relations? The answer lies in data. Good data can give us different perspectives, help us set goals and empower us to stop doing something that no longer serves our donors.


Getting started with data driven decisions doesn’t have to be an uphill battle; below are four ways to use data to evaluate your projects.



1. Events We all know events can be a major drain on time and resources, but what can we do about it? The first step is to evaluate your events and determine those that are worth continuing. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know what the purpose of the event was?

  • Did the event fulfill its purpose?

  • Did you have the level of attendance and interaction that you were hoping for?

  • Did at least 20% of the invitees attend the event?

  • How do your donors feel about the event? Did you send a donor survey?

  • What was the cost per person of the event? Was there a call to action?

There are so many data points that can be compiled to measure event success; now it’s time to use that data and make some decisions.


We host events for many different purposes – recognition, cultivation, retention, celebration and more. The first step is to think about what you are trying to accomplish and get everyone on the same page. If it is determined, through data, that this event is worth the time and effort and ultimately demonstrates a meaningful ROI with your donors, then this is an event you should be doing.



2. Acknowledgments

Acknowledgments fall into the category of “have to do” for donor relations shops, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thoughtful and strategic about our approach. There is such a thing as sending too many thank you letters to a donor. Be thoughtful about the communications you send and make sure you are coordinating with other areas of your organization. Some institutions are large, which means everyone doesn’t always know what other areas are doing or providing to donors.


First and foremost, put a plan in place. Reach out to your colleagues and understand the landscape of who is sending what, to whom, and when. Track your acknowledgments: at any given time, you should be able to easily know if a donor received a letter and have the data to back it up. Also, how many acknowledgments are your highest level of leadership expected to sign? Are these letters hand-signed or electronic? Make sure it’s a manageable number – if leaders are signing hundreds each week, your threshold is likely too low. Using data, you may decide to implement a new tiering system to alleviate (or increase) volume. Either way, the intelligence you’ve gathered will support your position and show leadership you’re making informed decisions.



3. Reporting

The types of reports your organization sends will determine what type of data you can obtain. In my experience, digital reporting offers the best metrics. When we send reports by mail, we can collect data by asking our donors for feedback through surveys, but otherwise, it can be difficult to know if a donor actually opened it. Conversely, with most digital platforms, we can see how donors interact with the digital content and what they seem to like based on how long they stay on a page. As an example, with endowment reporting through one of the digital platforms, e.g. ODDER or Ovrture (or whatever you may be using), we are able to see a donor open the report. For some platforms, we also can see where the donor is located geographically and what content they interact with. Some even offer donors an option to send a message back to the organization. Using this data helps us make informed, important decisions with our reporting:

  • Is this donor interested in our content?

  • Should we continue to send reporting to a donor who never opens anything we send?

In analyzing this data, we also decide when changes to content are needed to be more engaging or meaningful. Overall, using data in reporting helps us make more informed decisions about how we are spending our time and resources.



4. Retention rates


We’ve heard it before, and by now we all know that retention rates are vitally important to nonprofits – it costs less to keep the ones we have! But how do we determine this number? First, it’s important to know how reports are pulled from your CRM to do some analysis. Donor retention is a measurement of how many donors continue to give to your organization year after year. Without this number, how do you know if your donors are staying engaged with you or moving their philanthropy to another organization? The answer is: you don’t. Start collecting this data on an annual basis to get ahead of the game. Once you know your retention rate, you can start acting – putting programs and processes in place to retain them.


According to QGIV, the average donor retention rate is hovering around 40-45% across the nonprofit sector. This means that if 100 donors give to your organization in a given year, then only about 40 of those donors will give again the following year.

That’s a scary thought! Here’s a simple formula you can use to start tracking retention:


#of Returning Donors (Year 2) / #of Previous Year Donors (Year 1) = Retention Rate (%)

Now that you have a few ideas on types of intelligence you can collect and analyze, it’s time to take action! Start collecting data now and use it to articulate your value as well as make strategic decisions about what work you do and how you do it!


If you want to use more about the concept of data-driven decision making in donor relations tune in for our latest webinar series to learn how to harness the right data to take your efforts to the next level.


Already using data to drive decisions in your donor relations shop? We’d love to hear from you! What are some ways you’ve successfully used data to redefine your work and responsibilities?


Written by Christine McGuire


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