Data and the Search for Big Donors

How fundraisers crunch numbers, sift Facebook chatter, and analyze their results to learn exactly what donors want.

By Nicole Wallace

Excerpt from an article originally published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 2016

When Facebook ‘Likes’ Turn Into Gifts

Raising cash via social media hasn’t been the bonanza many nonprofits expected. But fundraisers are starting to glean information from social networks to better target their appeals.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology used Facebook to identify the passion that might spark giving among donors who hadn’t made a contribution in five or more years. MIT’s fundraisers analyzed the lapsed donors’ “likes” on the university’s Facebook pages, then sent them an email newsletter that featured stories on the three topics that had generated the most interest.

The fundraisers then tallied which articles were most read. The winner? A feature on the university’s robotics program. MIT followed up with an email to those who had read the article, asking for a contribution to a robotics crowdfunding campaign. The percentage who responded with a gift was small but still roughly twice the rate of past solicitations to lapsed donors. So the university sent the email to the rest of the group.

The appeal, which went to 55,000 lapsed donors, raised nearly $30,000 — including one $20,000 gift. Such a big gift from a little-heard-from alum is unusual, says Tim Poisson, director of marketing and participation at the MIT Annual Fund. And it was a great lead to pass on to the major-gifts office.

“We’ve given the development office essentially an entry point,” he says.

Oregon State University is starting to take social-media information into consideration as it assigns donors to major-gifts officers.

The university’s fundraisers can visit and build personal relationships with only a small number of the people in its database. To determine which donors merit the attention, Oregon State’s foundation typically used wealth data and an engagement score based on factors such as whether the person contributes, volunteers, or attends events.

As the university analyzed interactions with its owned Facebook pages, fundraisers wondered if the data could help gauge donor interest. So the foundation conducted an experiment.

Fundraisers identified 100 people in the database who were extremely active on the university’s social media but had an engagement score of zero. These individuals also had the capacity to give $25,000 or more, according to development-office ratings.

Fundraisers then called to see if they could set up a meeting in person or over the phone. Typically, when the university’s fundraisers reach out to set up first visits with potential major donors, 20 percent agree. Of the 100 people highly engaged with the university’s social networks, 44 percent said “yes.”

The results, though not scientific, were encouraging enough that Oregon State now rates alumni as engaged if they have liked more than 50 university Facebook posts or commented at least 10 times in a year.

The fundraising office receives weekly alerts noting posts that have garnered “likes” or comments from highly rated prospects. The information is forwarded to the donor’s assigned fundraiser. In time, however, the university hopes to capture those donor-interest tidbits in its database, says Mark Koenig, an assistant vice president at the foundation.

“That kind of insight would help us as we start to get more and more sophisticated in our analytics program,” he says.

Both Oregon State and MIT use software from EverTrue, a company that lets fundraisers pair donor-database information with data from the universities’ Facebook and LinkedIn pages and from Zillow, Google Maps, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Bringing all that information together helps fundraisers plan events for donors who work in a particular industry or region. And it simplifies preparation for meetings with out-of-town contributors, says Anthony Barbuto, assistant vice president for leadership gifts at Boston University.

“Instead of having a full week of prep before a trip, it might be just a few days,” he says. “I can make more trips in a month than I would have otherwise.”

So far, EverTrue’s analysis of donors’ social-media activity has focused only on their interactions with the client nonprofit’s digital content, says founder Brent Grinna, but the firm hopes to expand to look at donors’ entire social-media presence.

“When you think about why Facebook, for example, is so valuable, it’s because it allows brands and organizations to target people based on specific interests,” says Mr. Grinna. “We don’t think there’s any reason that nonprofits shouldn’t be able to benefit from it in the same way.”

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