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Nathan Moore
Nathan Moore | Senior Business Development Manager — Nonprofit, Civis Analytics

Building a cohesive strategy for donor management isn’t easy but it doesn’t have to be painful either. Success really comes down to two things: 

  1. Knowing who you’re talking to 
  2. Knowing how to talk to them

Donors are the lifeblood of many nonprofit organizations, and with the rise of the internet, it has never been easier to reach individuals who might be interested in giving. But it can also feel like it has never been harder. 

It’s one thing to “pray and spray” with an email blast. It’s quite another to develop fine-tuned, timely communications that speak directly to potential donors and have a serious chance of converting them — and that’s often where the hard work gets started, as determining how to manage existing donors and prospects can prove confounding. 

Organizations need to know with authority who their audiences actually are, and what drives them, in order to develop customized experiences and campaigns that stand a real chance of success. However, most organizations rely on disparate data sources for their donors — information collected from email, direct mail, social media, websites, and elsewhere. These silos create serious technical roadblocks to the type of data-driven strategy that leads to building more personalized relationships with your audience and increasing revenue.

That’s why it’s so important to develop a basic understanding of the types of data nonprofits collect, what value and insight each type brings to the table, and how these organizations can improve the utility of the data they already have.

icon of a file folder with structured data

First-Party Data

An invaluable resource for understanding supporter engagement, although silos must be addressed to fully realize its potential

First-party data is personal information (names, addresses, phone numbers) that users choose to share with an organization directly — for example, when purchasing an item, signing up for a newsletter, or making a donation. 

Most organizations have significant amounts of this data, and that’s good news. First-party data is the highest-quality type of data, and it serves multiple purposes for organizations looking to gain deeper perspectives into past, present, and future supporters. 

There are many ways this data can be analyzed to draw out below-the-surface insights and boost an organization’s ability to build more comprehensive and effective donor outreach strategies. At a foundational level, this includes establishing profiles of individual donors and cataloging their interactions with you across channels and touchpoints, enabling marketing tactics customized to particular personas and preferences.

But first-party data has to be used and managed correctly, because there is a dramatic difference between “having data” and “having usable data” — in other words, data capable of actually answering the questions asked of it. 

Eliminating silos is the key to developing a more accurate, holistic, and shared understanding of how donors actually interact with an organization (the much-coveted “donor journey”). Silos result from multiple teams working across multiple, disconnected data sources, and can lead to errors, duplicated information, and other headaches. Consolidating and cleaning this data is essential to improving insight and expanding collaboration: by allowing authorized stakeholders across teams and locations to securely access and share the same aggregated information, they can more effectively analyze it, and collectively draw new insights from it. 

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Third-Party Data

A supplement to first-party data to help organizations build a deeper understanding of donors, and better prioritize how to target resources 

Third-party data is information derived from sources that may or may not have a direct relationship with a particular user. Some examples include data on a person’s race, ethnicity, household income, voting propensity, and more.

Third-party data is most valuable in uncovering the answers to questions that first-party data cannot, providing additional context about existing donors while also identifying potential new ones. In addition to enhancing an organization’s understanding of its audience, this data can also be used to help resolve duplicates across various first-party data sets, enabling an organization to gain a definitive picture of all of the individuals in its file. 

Another benefit of third-party data: it is an essential ingredient to building high-quality predictive models. This means it can be used to predict the likelihood of an unknown variable, such as whether a one-time donor might be converted into a sustaining donor. These models help grow donations among new and existing audiences alike by enabling an organization to enhance the precision of its outreach campaigns, leading to higher conversion rates and ultimately ensuring a better overall donor experience.

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Survey Research

A wide-ranging option with many different resources and methodologies to consider, including custom survey research for more specific needs

Organizations may sometimes find themselves asking questions that existing data can’t answer. Examples include questions like “What other nonprofit brands are my supporters familiar with?” or “Does our organization’s new mission statement resonate with our target population?” Thankfully, there are many other resources available, including surveys and message testing, to facilitate better understanding of an issue or population. 

Publicly accessible polling, research, and sociographic information on a variety of topics is widely available, often for free (e.g., the U.S. Census). Whether the information will be useful for an organization’s particular needs, however, depends on high-quality, accurate data collection, including:

  • Using unbiased questions and questionnaire design
  • Asking the right questions at the right time in a donor’s journey
  • Ensuring responses are representative of the intended audience

Survey research offers maximum flexibility to address an organization’s particular needs, such as the desire for up-to-date information or for deep dives into specific topics, geographies, or population segments. It’s important to partner with experienced survey science professionals versed in the latest polling methodologies and best practices; they can work with you to design questionnaires guaranteed to generate high-quality, helpful, and actionable responses. At Civis Analytics, our staff of survey scientists, data scientists, and data engineers work together to ensure all the surveys we conduct meet the highest methodological standards. 

Note that surveys utilizing randomized control trial experiments (widely considered the gold standard in social science) can also be used for message testing — i.e., evaluating how different messages resonate with different audiences, or whether a marketing email runs the risk of alienating recipients — to determine the most impactful approach prior to launching a campaign. 

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Putting It All Together

Now that you have all this data at your fingertips, what comes next? You’ll want to find a platform that centralizes these audience insights, democratizing access to insights across a wide range of authorized stakeholders and establishing a culture of frictionless, data-driven decision making throughout the organization.

Many leading nonprofits are embracing an automation strategy commonly known as data extraction, transformation, and loading (ETL) to process and integrate data from multiple channels in the correct format for use by these data warehouses. See how Civis Platform automates the ETL process, enabling nonprofits to more easily and effectively generate critical insights into increasing revenue, drive smarter decisions, make more impactful and personalized requests of supporters, and improve service delivery.