Category Archives: data managament

Reversing the Alumni Giving Slide: Hope is Not a Strategy

Fewer than 1-in-10 alumni give back! What are you doing about this? And, how long will it take you?

A slide like this is requires a qualitative paradigm shift, not a quantitative shift
Alumni Participation for 40 years: A slide like this is requires a qualitative paradigm shift, not a quantitative shift

Many in our industry have been pointing to the declining alumni participation rates. This isn’t new; since the 1980’s, the rate has dipped 10%! The alarm that these rates should generate, however, has been muted. The malaise toward this decline is likely due to the increasing average gifts education institutions are concurrently experiencing. Even for engaged or elite institutions, this downward trend is, well, alarming. The CNN Money article highlighting this decline points to multiple degrees across multiple institutions as a cause, as well as overall indebtedness experienced by recent alumni. If this were the case, I wouldn’t be so worried for our long-term health. But, I am. And, you should be, too. Here’s why:

  1. Now or never. If you don’t reach your grads from the last 10 years (often called GOLD—Graduates of the Last Decade), they tend not to be reclaimed. Life and other philanthropic interests just get in the way.
  2. Competition is fierce. As the hyper-successful ALS ice bucket challenge is proving (and Kickstarter, fundme, and other “give-right-now” opportunities reinforce) there are only so many disposable income dollars. Giving is typically 2% of GDP each year; it doesn’t rise or fall much, and, in 2013, Warren Buffett was about 1% all giving in the U.S.! If you wait to engage donors on your timetable, other nonprofits may slide in ahead of you.
  3. Education is changing. The days of “the best four years of your life” as a case for support are changing. Campus-based higher education will not be replaced, but many alums did not and will not really imprint with their alma mater.

Many institutions are trying mightily to change the trend. The costs can be great and the return can be fleeting. A few benefit from tightly knit alumni bases with a culture of philanthropy But if yours doesn’t, you need to act. Given the three reasons for alarm, your annual giving effort must change, potentially radically.

Direct mail? Sure, but no longer on your calendar…move mailings to gain preemptive gifts from those who will be poached by other causes. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Your competition isn’t just the crush of holiday mailings which may drown your year-end mailing; the real competition started yesterday, doesn’t care what your mail house schedule is or how long it takes to get an appeal letter approved, and–by today–may have siphoned hundreds of your donors’ disposable income away through crowdfunding, self-funding sites, slick Facebook apps, and other tools that higher ed has been slower to adopt.

Phonathon? Yep, except work harder to get cell phones and build a texting-based strategy.

Social media? Of course, but don’t expect “ice bucket” results. Instead, start with data and analysis, identify and engage well-networked alumni and ask them to tweet, like, and post on your behalf.

Peer-to-Peer? Many in higher ed have great success with “class agent” models. These need more sophisticated tools to support more wired alumni groups. Excel files emailed on an occasional basis are not going to do it for most alums who want to help.

Email? Yep. But, as with cell phone and direct mail, data quality and targeting must be improved.

If you don’t have the budget or the base to tackle the issue, there is a less palatable option—change your focus. We all know US News & World Report is a beast that must be fed. However, only sizable percentage gains will likely affect your institution’s positioning. With your data, annual giving avenues, and donor behaviors, is a 20% gain at all feasible? How much will that pull up your ranking? Most will find that this is a stretch goal, at best. So, dive headlong into retention and upgrades as parallel measures of success. Bring up average gifts…literally by generating larger averages and tactically in board presentations and as metrics.

The future of education may be so different than anticipated that any predictions will be way off. However, this doesn’t mean that preparation and reinvention should be postponed. In fact, because we don’t know what’s coming, we must immediately tackle the sliding participation of our young alumni while working diligently to retain or reclaim more seasoned alumni.

Hope is not a strategy so get going in changing your approach to changing alumni behaviors.

3 Analytics Challenges: Context, Endogeneity and Spurious Results

Donor Analytics ContextAn interesting visual depiction of spurious correlation (check it out here) reminded me of my grad school days and the rigor with which I would build hypotheses. Rather than let R, SPSS, or Excel correlate away and then proclaim some amazing finding, I started from the reasons and results I expected to validate with data. The difference is, all too often, that the former approach tells you very little due to endogeneity, spurious results, and the lack of context.

Some organizations–Google is known for this–will say “don’t worry about the why”. Some have referred to this approach as “theory-free“, a nice euphemism to indicate how little long-term value we might find in these correlations. Now, for consumer behavior where Big Data is truly present  perhaps this works. But, data points are rarely available for nonprofit analytics in the same way as, say, Target and Wal-Mart have data…although there are new options underway, like David Lawson’s newsci.co.

And, if you talk with a gift officer who’s been disappointed with predictive modeling results, you see a different picture. From that vantage point, the analytics results are frequently devoid of context. The result confirm what we already knew (“these prospects look rich! they live in a nice neighborhood!”) or reflect a pattern we already see (“they gave last year! let’s ask them again!”). Yet, modeling doesn’t typically improve relationships with prospects.

A big culprit: Context. Donor context is critical in building relationships. And, context is quite challenging to incorporate into modeling. The following are real examples of discussions about potential prospects surfaced by a context-free model:

  • “Sure, Jane looks promising, but we don’t have a phone number to reach her and no volunteer connection, so how likely is it she’s approachable?”
  • “Absolutely, Ed looks great, but did you know he just filed for divorce?”

The solution to this issue isn’t to cast off analytics. It’s to improve it. Start with and add in theory. Guard against spurious results. Don’t elevate an endogenous variable as meaningful. And, most of all, our industry needs resources that can actually add context to results. As a student of philanthropy, I am anxiously awaiting the time when our new science of analytics better delivers on the hype and improves our understanding of donor behaviors, while avoiding endogeneity and spurious results.

Are you using Infographics as reporting tools? You should be.

During National Business Intelligence (BI) Month, a number of top-notch infographics have caught my eye. These handy visuals are really reports, depicting data and details germane to a topic. But, they are also much more. They provide guidance about how to use the data. They tell a story. They provide business process guidance. In short, they’re quite helpful and you should be looking into how these can help your fundraising efforts.

I should note that I know this topic is not new. Infographics have been around for years and some folks have declared them irrelevant or unhelpful. However, any visualization of information that tells the story you need told can be valuable, so infographics likely have utility in your shop.

BWF Analytics Infographic

For example, our firm created a handy infographic (on the right) to present data from a survey we conducted on analytics. This image is really many reports in one. It presents the data in a logical order. In general, it is a useful guide to the topic of fundraising analytics, benchmarking for staff, and related information.

So, how should you set about creating an infographic?

  1. Determine your topic. Infographics can be great for 40,000 foot ideas as well as minutia, but generally not both.
  2. Find your data. What data do you have to display? What data would you like to go get?
  3. Lay out your story. The visual aspects of this process are important. Do you want the reader to “take it all in”, “follow along”, or just see some useful visual depictions of data and interpretation?
  4. Pick a infographic tool and get going. Many tools are out there. Check out this resource for some good and free tools.

Finally, I thought I’d take some of my own advice (for a change!). Below is the inaugural fundraisingoperations.com infographic. It uses data from a survey I did for my 2011 book An Executive’s Guide to Fundraising Operations. While my effort isn’t as amazing as this awesome college football bowl game pic, I created it in 20 minutes. Have any great infographic examples? Drop your links in the comments. Happy infographic-ing!

Data Quality and Quantity, v2
This pic presents data from Cannon’s 2011 book on fundraising operations, which shows how data quality expectations and perceptions vary.

Get your grateful patient process going

It’s 2013…a lot transpired in recent months that may affect healthcare fundraising. New and different taxes. New and different healthcare provisions. New and (potentially) different court rulings. But, one this hasn’t changed: your organization must get serious about installing and leveraging an effective grateful patient program.

Great grateful patient and family programs have interrelated components–physicians and other care givers, admissions, development, and compliance folks are all in the mix. None of your internal sensitivities should be ignored, but none should be allowed to derail an effort to put a great, HIPAA-compliant process in place. We also know that some parts of a program matter more than others. In particular, physician referrals seem to make the most difference. A robust, end-to-end business process will cement the behaviors needed to capitalize on, or start to create, such referrals.

So, what does a great process look like? Much like great fundraising campaigns, details of the process will vary from organization to organization. I submit that a great process for some could be completely paper-driven and manual while others must be automated to be effective. All of them share key core process and technical components, though. The following diagram depicts each element that must be in place.

Grateful patient process

A few points about this process:

  • Patients can include outpatient and clinic visits, but you might want to start with the smaller data set of in-patients.
  • Nightly screening matters most when there is a subsequent daily review and triggers.
  • In-patient visits are permissible, but a philanthropic culture must be in place first.
  • If you don’t record and analyze the data and activity generated from the process, you are missing a big part of the process.
  • It will take time to yield big results, but some of our clients processes leverage annual giving channels to provide immediate financial benefit, and identify potential major donors.
  • There are dozens of other considerations not covered here but important to the process…so many issues, to be honest, that I joke this should be the subject of my next book.

Your team may not have the technical ability to build real-time data exchanges from the patient database to the screening company to your donor database. If API and SQL are foreign concepts, your process can still be rigorous and daily. However, automating visit ticklers, introduction letters, and other elements of the process, it is typically worth the effort. Ultimately, this business process should generate big-ticket leads while greatly expanding your solicitable constituency.

Remember that developing a business process here is the responsible thing to do. The law allows it and your organization’s competition may already be doing it. If you already have a process in place, could you make it even better? And, if you don’t have a process, now is the time to get going? Get the data, people, and processes in place and start delivering better and better prospects to support you fundraising efforts. Good luck and feel free to share any challenges or successes you’re experiencing.

January is National Business Intelligence Month…

…didn’t you know that? Of course you didn’t. With the holidays, closing some year-end gifts (not to mention the books), and learning an awful lot about Amazon’s post-holiday online return policy, how could you keep up with all of the information being thrown at you. It’s hard enough to have the right information, much less use it effectively. Plus, it’s not really National Business Intelligence Month. I made that part up.

So, why the subterfuge? We need to draw attention to the critical need in the advancement business for more and better reporting and analysis. Some of you already have what you need. Some stopped looking years ago. Some have that “special” report that some poor person spends hours to prepare. But, most of us want better reporting, the kind that actually helps us make decisions about the business and tells us things we otherwise wouldn’t have known.

Better reporting requires a few things. This flow chart shows the way to better reporting. But, even more important than creating reporting is turning it into business intelligence.

Report Development Cycle

Let’s work to get even better data into even more clear reports that drives even better decisions. Let’s stop with the ad hoc, don’t-really-learn-much urgent reporting and develop a thoughtful suite of reporting that allows you to direct the team. Let’s develop shared definitions and expectations, allowing our reports to mean the same thing no matter the audience. So, know that I think about it, let’s make January National Business Intelligence Month. Make sure to put it on your calendar for next year.

December 2012 is National Month Month…

…or so I tweeted a few weeks ago. My plan is to envelope the work we lovingly call fundraising operations, or advancement services, or “the back office”, or “you know, that stuff they do with computers” into 12, neat monthly categories. The purpose is to drawn attention to whole sets of work that we sometimes avoid but can never quite escape (I’ve tried).

So, for those of us so fortunate to be toiling away the day after December 25th, what “National _____ Month” would you designate and why?

Integrated Advancement Ecosystem idea

Years ago, I created this image and phrase “integrated advancement ecosystem.” It guides my thinking, and I’ll be building on and detailing the concepts in this framework in the months to come. Some of the components are called different things by different (types of) organizations. For example, “constituent programs” for a university are generally “alumni relations” whereas in healthcare, perhaps it’s “community relations.” I welcome your ideas about it.

Cannon's Integrated Advancement Ecosystem

The Purpose of the (Gift) Process

Log jam
Are gifts and data updates piling up?

“Tis the season…for bottlenecks and backlogs in our processes. Fundraising operations requires consistent, efficient processes. But, fundraising is an inconsistent business. We are in the business of the exceptional, as was the focus of my 99-1 blog a few months back.

As we approach year-end with (hopefully!!) piles and piles of gifts to process, let’s remember four essential ideas:

  1. The purpose of gift processing is first and foremost stewardship.
  2. The reason we (should) love fundraising is because our teamwork can generate a sometimes overwhelming volume of gifts.
  3. Our business process should be efficient ( doing “the thing right”) and effective (doing “the right thing”).
  4. We must adopt a front-of-the-line approach to ensure that our most cherished donors receive the level of stewardship they deserve for their role in our 2012 success.

Having your team abide by these four essential ideas will ensure that we don’s lose track of why we’re so busy in the first place. Good luck!

Change is Hard…but Decline is Worse

Development and alumni organizations face obstacles and challenges each day. It seems that pressure comes from all sides and angles. Raise more money, despite a slow economy. Engage more people, despite increasing competition for space in people’s lives. Lately, two core changes have been impacting nonprofits around the country: leadership changes and technology issues. Both of these affect fundraising operations, and finding a way to “handle” these issues is critical. On the leadership front, high functioning presidents and vice presidents are in high demand. Tenures of university presidents and healthcare CEO’s declining. There’s not much most can do to stop this slide, except to be prepared for it to happen. On the technology front, 2012 was full of mergers and other changes that substantially impact development technology suites. Much of this change is aligning with the tail-end of many product life cycles. These changes affect every nonprofit for a donor database, so one of these days these marketplace changes will affect each organization. More change is stemming from social, online, and BI-based innovations occurring at a pace that’s hard to match. The most dangerous aspect of the core changes is the all-too-frequent dip in productivity organizations experience “as a result of” the change. This issue is in quotes because, while leadership and technology change is hard to “manage” (we typically don’t have much control), these changes can be anticipated and protected against. The good news is that both of these changes can be managed through a similar set of solutions which will keep decline at bay in the midst of change:

  1. Plan the work. A plan that aligns with the organization’s mission and vision will help ride out the turbulence from a big leadership or technology change. You might be surprised at how effective a good plan is in keeping the trains running on time.
  2. Work the plan. The plan should have measurable targets for behavior. Great plans will reward and steer attention to the highest value activities we can muster. So, if the plan is in place, working it should generate the results your organization needs, despite a presidential transition or a looming conversion.
  3. Avoid the tyranny of the urgent. In both cases, careful change management (starting with requirements, weighing options, evaluating real and intangible costs) must prevail over short-term thinking and flailing actions. Plus, reminding folks about what’s important in their daily work and the impact their role has on the organization’s constituents can help retain staff despite rough patches.
  4. Get in front of disruptive change. This last issue is the most complicated and I’ve dedicated a separate blog to it. Leadership and technology changes are disruptive, often resulting in entirely new ways of doing business. We have seen in 2012 with Hostess, and over and over again for Kodak, that markets move on, and our offerings must match today’s and tomorrow’s needs. As fundraising tactics shirt around direct response, as phonable and mailable constituents decline, as the nature of our organization’s missions and deliverables change (think MIT’s free open courseware offerings and the impact of the Affordable Care Act on healthcare philanthropy), our fundraising strategies and tactics must keep pace.

And, if we plan the work, work the plan, and remain focused on the important, we can get through change without a dip n productivity. Do you have suggestions for handling change and avoiding declines in the process? Let’s hear about them!