Building Healthy Expectations with Fundraising Data (Part Two)

In part one we discussed how data is imperfect--the expectation should be that it makes you more accurate than simply guessing. But when it comes to major gifts, data won’t replace a skilled fundraiser’s ability to build a relationship with a donor. And in building a relationship with a donor, you can add unstructured data (about a donor’s passions, for example) and refine and validate structured data about family, careers, and wealth.

This use of personal, more anecdotal data to supplement anything captured in a spreadsheet is a powerful combination when used at both for-profits and nonprofits. Steve Lacy, Executive Chairman of Meredith Corp. whose publications include Time magazine and Better Homes & Gardens, tells a story about the use of data in their marketing department. A Senior Vice President came into a meeting excited by the treasure trove of data they were able to compile about their readers claiming, "We know our customers better than they know themselves!" He reflected by saying, "I almost fired her on the spot!" He admitted that while they are able to utilize significant data including buying and personal habits, the data tells an incomplete story. "Each customer has their own story." Just as each potential donor has theirs. 

Information from data services should serve as a starting point to provide some background and general expectations. It can help inform who you should be visiting and add detail where a donor may not offer it. For example, a donor may disclose that they recently sold their business, but without research you may not know how much it sold for. For these reasons (and even just to avoid looking a little creepy) fundraisers should still enter early prospect conversations with a curious mind. Asking open ended questions, about children or a career as examples, can validate or discredit research done beforehand.

Appending data points about donors is a useful exercise, but simply adding a column to a spreadsheet doesn’t ensure fundraising success. Data is a supplemental tool that can help prioritize and identify donors, analyze fundraising programs, and inform ask amounts. But data doesn’t build relationships. That requires skilled fundraisers who can sit across from a donor, uncover what their passions are and communicate how your organization speaks to those passions.