3 Steps to Make Your Nonprofit More Data-Driven

5 min
neon sign that says data has a better idea in front of a cityscape
profile picture of Classy blog contributor Will Schmidt
Will Schmidt

“Most of the world will make decisions by either guessing or using their gut. They will be either lucky or wrong.”

Suhail Doshi
CEO of Mixpanel

Data is the key to success for any organization, for profit or nonprofit, that wants to go from the abstract realm of “I think” to the concrete world of “I know.” Instead of relying on guesses or a go-with-your-gut mentality, data can arm you to plot a course of action that you confidently know will produce the results you want, whatever they may be.

However, building data-driven organizations is easier said than done. Not only do you have to make the conscious choice to prioritize data, you also have to empower your nonprofit with people and tools to act on the right metrics. Below, we’ve gathered three insights to help you foster a data-centric mindset and, by extension, a data-centric nonprofit.

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1. Make Your Data Transparent and Accessible

If your nonprofit’s data is guarded and hidden from your staff, it can derail your efforts to become data-driven before you even begin. So, be transparent and make your data easily available for you team. This includes everything from donor-centered metrics to financials on your nonprofit itself.

Pro Tip
To help create a sense of transparency around data, consider sending an internal weekly email to your staff showing progress against your goals. Additionally, provide some of your own analysis on these trends to stimulate data-driven conversations across the company.

Beyond a weekly email, there are many other ways you can be transparent with your data, like:

  • Creating dashboards where people can track months, or even years, worth of data
  • Hosting quarterly review meetings to discuss and dissect your data
  • Encouraging individuals or teams to run data-centered growth tests and share their results with everyone

Transparency, while important, is only half of the equation though. You still need to empower your team to act on this data by equipping them with the right tools.

For example, the person in charge of your online fundraising can use a platform like Classy. They can run detailed reports on campaign data and draw insights about its performance that inform future campaign strategies.

Learn How Classy Can Help You Stay Data-Driven

Similarly, your development director can use a constituent relationship management system (CRM) like Salesforce to organize all your incoming data and provide structure to the noise. Further, your marketing team may use email automation tools that give you detailed metrics on things like open and click through rates.

Regardless of what you choose, tools are necessary to sift through the mounds of data you’ll collect. These are what will help you communicate crucial information to your entire team about where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go.

Download: World-Changing Work, The Modern Nonprofit Professional’s Experience

2. Focus on Actionable Metrics

As you and your team progress, it can be easy to get lost in the sheer amount of data you’re pulling. The key here is to not focus on everything, but rather the metrics which will help improve the performance of your nonprofit as a whole or the individual departments within.

Keep your team concentrated on actionable metrics which provide context to help your organization change behavior and improve performance. Try to avoid vanity metrics, which often lack the context needed to grow your nonprofit. Here’s a quick example to help illustrate:

  • Vanity Metric: The total number of people who clicked “like” on your nonprofit video posted to Facebook
  • Actionable Metric: The average amount of time people spent watching your video

The vanity metric here fails to tell you anything of importance:

  • Did these people only “like” the post, or did they share it?
  • How much of the video did they watch?
  • Are they actually interested in your message, or did they simply click “like” because it came across their feed?

The actionable metric here, by contrast, gives you a strong sense of success. You know, with a certainty, how long people spent watching your video.

If the average engagement time is 50 seconds, but your video was 90 seconds, you can apply that learning moving forward. Your team can aim to have the next video you produce be 50 seconds or less to ensure maximum audience engagement.

Get 6 Expert Tips to Help Create Amazing Videos

Tracking actionable metrics shows you what works and what doesn’t. From there, you know if you should double down on your tactics or pivot direction.

Pro Tip
Consider assigning each person at your nonprofit 1 to 3 actionable metrics that they’re responsible for monitoring and improving over time. Then, set clearly defined goals against these metrics.

Free Report: The State of Modern Philanthropy 2019—Trends in Return Donor Behavior

3. Hire the Right People

Not every employee you bring on to your team will have the analytical training of an engineer, but that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate and use actionable data in their distinct role. The right person, regardless of function, will understand how crucial data is to your nonprofit’s success.

As you build your data-centric mindset, take the time to also build a data-centric team. A few potential indicators in a prospective hire might be that they have:

  • An inquisitive and curious nature
  • The ability to recognize trends and find the root causes behind those trends
  • A decisive attitude that allows them to draw conclusions and a course of action

Once you’ve got the right team, it’s important to foster an environment where they can develop into stronger data-driven professionals. The culture you create is paramount to your success. Here are three simple things you can do to keep data on everyone’s mind:

  • Always demand some sort of quantitative analysis to back up assertions from your team
  • Reward people for creating and testing hypotheses before jumping into something head-on
  • Allow people to select the key metrics they want to track

Get Hiring Templates and Resources Here

Creating a data-driven culture in your organization is not something that will happen overnight. It takes time, patience and a lot of reflection to figure out what is working and what isn’t. And along the way don’t be afraid to ask your team for feedback.

If you’re looking to take your data-driven mindset further than ever before, or get the engine started for the first time, join us at the 2019 Collaborative in Boston. You’ll meet likeminded nonprofit professionals and hear from some of the social sector’s top minds about all things data.


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