More Data or Different Data?

Today, we have more donor and prospective donor data than at any time in history.  From wealth indicators to database analytics providing giving predictions, generating donor data can be as simple as conducting a google search or as complex as conducting a paid wealth screen.  All manner of donor data is ubiquitous and quite easy to acquire.

As an advancement consultant, there is not a week that goes by in which a client doesn’t want to talk about acquiring more (read: better) data.  More times than not, the sentiment driving the need for more data is fairly simple:  If we only had more data, we’d know what we need to know to raise more money.  If we only knew who in our database had significant wealth, we’d make our campaign goal.  If we only knew who in our database fit the profile to make an annual gift, we’d acquire more donors and for less money.  If only. . .

No matter how many reports we have commissioned or how much data we currently have, somehow the “silver bullet of fundraising” will always be found in the data we have yet to acquire.

But the “more data equals better fundraising” thinking isn’t backed up by the facts.  For instance, with more access to donor data and more institutions acquiring and using donor data in various forms every day, one would think that we are doing a better job of raising more money today than in the past.  But we aren’t.  Take a look at the national numbers.

For over 40 years, the U.S. has not moved significantly one way or another off of the stubborn 2% giving level of gross domestic product (GDP).  Yes, we’ve raised more dollars over time, but that is only because our economy has grown.  The fact is, people’s incomes are higher today than they were 40 years ago, which is why the gift dollars are increasing.  We haven’t been successful in getting people to give any more of what they make – for over 40 years!

To encourage more people to give more of what they make, perhaps we need to rethink our “more data” addiction.  Or, at least rethink the kind of data we actually should get addicted to.  When we say, “we need more data,” we almost invariably mean quantitative data.  We need more of the so-called “hard data” in other words.  The “real” data – donor scores, ratings, dollar amounts, etc.

But what if the key to raising more money is found not in quantitative data, but, instead, is found in qualitative and experiential donor data?  What if the true “silver bullet of fundraising” is found in the data gathered through meaningful interactions with donors in which they become engaged with our institution’s mission and we grow to understand them as people and not “giving units?”  Data that informs us of donor giving interests, values, generosity triggers, and relationships has a thickness and richness that quantitative data simply can’t offer.  And, it can help us raise more money.

There is an old saw in our work:  “It is your friends, not strangers, who will give to you.”  Developing friendship is a qualitative, time-intensive effort.  It takes care and effort.  It takes a different kind of data.  It takes attention to the whole person.

So, maybe we do need “more data” to raise more money.  It’s just that the data we should be collecting might need to be quite different.


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