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How nonprofits can use business intelligence to empower decision making

When people think about data, their minds often go to spreadsheets full of endless numbers or reports that don’t tell them what they really need to know about their fundraising programs.

And if your data is unrefined, that’s often the case.

Dona Wong, author of The Wall Street Journal Guide to Informational Graphics, sums it up perfectly: “Data is meaningless unless it is filtered, analyzed and presented in a way that is easily understood by the targeted audience.”

That’s where business intelligence (BI) comes in. When done correctly, BI dashboards, visualizations and reports uncover opportunities and actionable insights that nonprofit fundraisers can use to transform their direct response programs.

But BI can’t just be set it and forget it. It must be managed, monitored and molded to your organization to ensure you’re getting the information you need.

Picking and managing your tool

There are plenty of BI tools out there that can help you get a read on your data. However, picking the right one for your organization can be a little tricky.

Many tools are sold as being simple and easy to use. But, at the end of day, they lack true plug-and-play functionality and end up requiring more resources than your organization has available.

My advice to nonprofits looking to invest in a BI tool is to first understand what back-end requirements are needed. Ask the following questions:

  • How much legwork is required to get it up and running?
  • Does it require special knowledge to run?
  • Do you have enough people on deck to manage the tool effectively?
  • How does it feed into your data governance plan?
  • What does the security management look like?
  • Can it pivot quickly to adapt to new data sources?

If the tool is too complicated for you to manage, you won’t be able to effectively make decisions that support sustainable growth.

Monitoring the right metrics

A common mistake organizations make once they have their BI tool in place is focusing on backward-looking metrics. To really take advantage of the wealth of knowledge at your fingertips, you need future-focused metrics that allow you to take action and understand change.

BI tools show you what’s happening now, giving you full visibility into the most critical metrics of your fundraising program, including:

Core donors (those who have given 2 consecutive years or more)

  • Average gift
  • Retention rate
  • Response rate
  • New donors
  • Forecasting these metrics
    • How do things look if things stay the same?
    • How do things look if they change?

Having a better understanding of who your core donors are or what your retention rates are doing in real time will allow you to make more effective decisions when in it comes to your fundraising programs.

While historical data is nice, just looking at the past doesn’t give you an accurate view of what’s happening here and now.

Molding it to fit your needs

What does this look like in real time? Let’s use the upcoming USPS postal rate increases as an example.

For many nonprofit organizations, postal rates will likely increase from anywhere between 6.5 to 8.5% by the end of the summer. This will have huge implications on direct mail costs.

With the right BI reports and dashboards in place, you can understand how this change impacts your cost to acquire a donor. Having this insight in your pocket will allow you to make strategic decisions that focus on acquiring the right donors at optimal first gift rates that promote long-term net.

This is just one example of the many decisions business intelligence can help guide. At the end of the day, organizations who take advantage of data and BI to lead decision making will see more effective fundraising strategies and sustainable growth.

Cathy Folkes

Cathy Folkes has worked in big data long before she (or anyone else) knew it was big data. She has developed databases, processes, CRMs, and analytic and reporting environments for many organizations. Cathy has worked with AARP, the American Cancer Society, The Salvation Army, Dell, Disney, Habitat for Humanity and Nike. As Chief Data Officer, Cathy leads the RKD Insights team, empowering nonprofits with the ability to confidently and efficiently execute data-driven fundraising strategies. She will work alongside your team to connect data to enrich marketing segmentation, analysis and insights.

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