Shifting Towards a Culture of Data-Driven Fundraising

We’re here in the 21st century surrounded by mountains of data and technology, and there are fundraising operations that are not taking advantage of it. We can provide insights and information about our donors in a way that’s unprecedented for nonprofits, but not every organization does. Why not?


Why do fundraising ideologies such as…

  • Gut fundraising (“I have a feeling that this donor could make a big gift…” “I think we’re pretty close to hitting our goal…”)
  • Faith-based fundraising (“Dear Higher Power, please let a million dollar check come in the mail today! PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEEEEEEEEASE LET US HIT GOAL!”)


…continue to be valid strategies in today’s fundraising world?

We’re heading towards a data-driven fundraising future. That future has already arrived for some nonprofits. But there are still a great number of higher-ed fundraising shops that have not harnessed the power of the information age. Change is coming—whether from internal pressure to keep up with the competition or external pressure to stay afloat.

Working with data is easy if you have the right tools and technology. If you enter the right keystrokes, a computer will do anything you want it to do. Want to delete everything? You can. The most resistance you’ll face is a dialogue asking, “Are you sure?”

Working with people is much more difficult, and that’s what can derail all of the hard work you do as an advancement services team. If you have all of the insights in the world and no one to act upon them, then haven’t you just wasted your time? The key is to get your advancement staff (and even leadership!) to buy into the power of data and technology, which requires cooperation and mutual benefits.

Below are some pointers for earning buy-in for your advancement services efforts.


1. Be reliable in all things data.

The goal here is to build faith in the way you collect, verify, distribute, and improve data. There is a lot involved in this goal, but it’s one that is essential to developing a data-driven culture. Technology is always improving, and with it, so must you improve. You must always seek new solutions and learn about what is possible. Always strive to make your data better— because it’s never, ever going to be 100 percent perfect.

2. Find (or create) an internal champion. 

As you begin to use data for more than just collection (that is, building insightful reports, doing preliminary analysis, etc.), be on the lookout for those who “get it.” This champion could be anyone: a VP, development officer, prospect researcher, administrative assistant.

Schedule time regularly with that person to discuss data and what he or she is trying to accomplish. Then, using data, make it a goal to make this person’s life easier. Be sure to communicate routinely with this person and take in feedback about what worked and didn’t. Expect a lot of trial and error (especially a lot of error). Through this partnership, you’ll start to build a base for communication with your data audiences. Plus, you’ll have someone who can testify that your processes actually do work.

3. Make it easy for staff to access data.

The use of data has to enhance, not impair, the processes in your office. This means that accessing and interacting with data must be quick and easy for staff members. If it isn’t, it’s all too easy to fall back on the old habits of fundraising. Easy tasks are repeatable. Repeatable tasks become habits.

4. Give your people what they want.

If your champion is a contact officer, they’ll likely have great insight into what others in the same role need to be successful. By starting out with one person’s needs, you can easily expand your efforts to many by taking care of the standard needs of that role and then adjusting as necessary.

As you expand to a larger group, gauge their reactions to the data they are using. This opens you up to opportunities for expanding your data. Is there a field that an employee finds particularly useful? Maybe you can append that field from an external source. As in most cases, asking why it’s valuable can help you determine what elements to add to your data.

5. Give your people what they don’t know they want.

Those who are new to working with data don’t always know what’s possible. Sometimes they don’t even know how to ask the right questions. So, if you find something remarkable when performing your analyses, share it. These become teachable moments. Talk about the methodology you used to gather, transform, and assemble the findings. It’s easy (and lazy) to give someone a report that says “Engaged Alumni,” but telling them that you’re able to aggregate Facebook data with event attendance and volunteerism might get the gears turning in the heads of non-data users.

6. Steward your data.

As your data processes grow, make sure to perform data stewardship with those involved in the process. Data stewardship is the same as stewardship with your donors and goes beyond just thanking those who make a difference. It’s also showing stakeholders the impact of the work they’re doing. At the same time, benchmark the health of your database on a monthly basis and share those stories with your advancement services and data teams.


The more that staff members benefit from data, the more likely they are to help you strengthen the data. This brings me to an important point: don’t forget to share the wins and successes that your team is having with data. This will help you get the buy-in you need to move away from gut/rooftop/faith fundraising.

Even if drawing insights from data vs. feeling isn’t something that your organization is ready for right now, it’s worth asking if your organization is ready to do things better. Could you benefit from more informed decisions and strategic planning? Culture can’t be created overnight. It’s going to take some time to take hold. Stick with it and stay consistent, because there’s a world of possibility once you start.


Matt Gullatta is the director of advancement services at Ashland University. Since becoming an advancement services professional in 2007, Matt has made it a personal mission to make data accessible, reliable, and fun! You can find Matt on Twitter, likely chasing down big data and analytics trends or posting animated GIFs.

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