Small Data Is the Key to Deeper Donor Segmentation

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Looking for love in all the wrong places?

In my hometown, there are only so many millionaires, and most nonprofits already know who they are. So how are we to find more donors, even as our gift pyramids have turned into hourglasses in the last few years?

In her recent blog post, Jen Filla addresses the challenges facing prospect research as our economy shifts:

You need fundraising programs that meet the needs of the constituents you have and will have in the future, not the ones you wish you could have. Data has to come from outside your organization as well as inside.

Data analytics is one of the several strategies Filla proposes, describing it as one more way to listen to your prospects, albeit as members of larger and larger groups. The words she uses verge on the poetic: “the cold method behind a warm philosophy.”

Data analytics certainly introduces efficiencies to prospecting, identifying additional people who possess the characteristics and behaviors our best donors already display. But sometimes I, too, question the role of seemingly impersonal analytics in the relationship-driven world of philanthropy.

Then I had lunch with my brother.

My brother volunteers with a local nonprofit which uses the words of Shakespeare to work with veterans. Like many in my hometown, it’s a small nonprofit with mostly volunteer staff and a noble cause (moderating the effects of PTSD through acting out some of Shakespeare’s most powerfully written dialogues). The budget is small, as is the organization’s donor base, and they certainly don’t have a CRM. But they do have Facebook page, so I suggested that’s where they should start.

As a partner in a technology business, my brother has worked with data for decades, so telling him to deploy analytics was preaching to the choir. But something else entirely had him really fired up during our lunch. He had just discovered, on Veterans Day, that a local news personality was a veteran. He called this discovery Small Data. I would call it prospect research.

Prospect research, the good old-fashioned kind which looks at people one at a time, focuses precisely on Small Data.

Big Data may be able to tell me who in my database is most likely to make a gift, who lives in the wealthiest zip codes, and who likes the organization’s Facebook posts. But there is still a place for a deeper dive, one prospect at a time, seeking the answers to questions like:

  • What are they most passionate about?
  • Who else should we be partnering with?
  • What should we talk about?
  • How much should we ask for?
  • When should we ask?

With limited time and long lists of non-millionaire donors, Twitter followers, and Facebook friends, prospect research needs to develop increasingly more efficient tactics—including analytics—to answer these questions.

We also need to notice when people raise their hands: by enclosing their check in a holiday card, volunteering to read to our preschoolers, tweeting from our events, advocating for the programs we offer, or sharing and liking every third Facebook post. We need tools that can produce segmented lists of people who share personal attributes, and we also need to see prospects as the individuals they are and listen when they express their love.

Small Data doesn’t just inform prospect research—it also informs future Big Data analytics. Best of all, Small Data helps our organizations develop strong and lasting relationships with our donors.


GivingTree can help you develop strong, lasting relationships using data analytics on your individual donors and prospects.



Sarah Bernstein is an independent consultant in Milwaukee, WI, supporting nonprofit organizations with prospect research and database analysis. She earlier worked in both the social service and higher education sectors. Sarah is an active member of APRA International and past president of the APRA Wisconsin Chapter. She blogs at The Fundraising Back-Office and can also be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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