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Analysis Paralysis

Saranah Holmes

Analysis Paralysis. I’ve always gotten a kick out of the picture this phrase conveys. To me, it’s a group of people – stopped in their tracks – looking at data on a computer screen. No movement, no light bulbs going off, no smiles and no solutions.

And in fundraising, where developing relationships with donors is key, I’ve been told plenty of times, “Just get out there and meet with people! Don’t have your head in the data – analysis paralysis!"

Well, I don’t think meeting people is the fundraiser’s problem most of the time.  

It’s prioritizing all the activities and information coming at you and being as strategic as possible with the limited time and resources you have. A typical fundraising staff person has hundreds of decisions to make on a daily basis – all involving data. So, it’s a good strategy to review a little bit of data before you step out that door.

At the most basic level, data can tell you where the donor is, why they give, when they gave, and of course, the amount they gave. If you don’t know these – you might not secure the meeting in the first place or might appear unprepared.  

In the end, you have to strike a balance between data analysis and real life. Yes, get out there and meet with the donor(s), but use the data to your advantage. Data has got to be part of the equation for a successful fundraising experience.

When data is organized and presented well it can help educate you and others, inform strategy, and mobilize action around a donor or a group of donors.       

This image illustrates how tracking data can help you strategize for the future./ Image courtesy of the author.  

This image illustrates how tracking data can help you strategize for the future./Image courtesy of the author. 

Build your baseline; build your donor story

So, for fundraisers – what is the data you should focus on? 

Well, can you answer these basic questions about your donors: who, what, why, when and how often? 

(If you can’t answer these key data points about your donor or a group of donors consistently or year over year you probably have a data collection and integrity problem. You need to clean up your data collection systems and processes and provide training to those recording it.)

If you can answer these questions, I recommend focusing next on these data points to build your donor story: 

·      Have they given in the past two or three years? What was the total amount?

·      How many times did they give (or not give)?

·      What is the average size gift by revenue channel?

·      What did they give to: specific campaigns and events or restricted programs or general support?

·      Why did they give: Did they give because someone close to them asked or you mailed a letter? Did they give because they are a recipient/participant/member of your organization?  Did they give when asked or did they give without an official request?

Knowing these key data points establishes a profile of your donor or a collective profile of many donors.

Use this information to not only understand your donor(s) better but to prioritize who you or others go to visit or solicit.

Beyond the baseline and into action

Once you understand your baseline you are better equipped to identify anomalies or positive trends and act on them. You can start to answer questions and address issues that impact a cross section of your operation – expenses/finance, systems, marketing, and personnel.

·      Have you been investing in direct mail such as in staffing, infrastructure or writing/content, and now see differences in results?

·      Have the cultivation events you hosted in a prior year started to pay off for major gift officers today?  

·      Are you able to see more clearly what the problems are with your pipeline and how to change course?

·      The latest philanthropy trends report says there is an increase in Donor Advised Fund giving. What can we do about that?

·      When thinking about your fundraising strategy in the future – what new data points do you need to collect to measure success?

With a solid data foundation, then strategies, goals and priorities are clearer – ensuring that that busy development staffer is spending their time and effort on the right donor(s) necessary for them to meet their fundraising goals.

Don’t forget: It’s all in the presentation

Have you ever seen donor data presented with music playing in the background and a light show?  Probably not that often. 

Why is it that data gets short-changed on pizazz when being presented?  To be universally understood by a diverse audience requires a lot of work up-front, by you using different mechanisms to reach your audience.  Use the baseline data and donor story you’ve built as the main narrative and work hard at displaying it graphically, succinctly and in an accessible format.  Don’t be ashamed to use even simple graphics available on Powerpoint to visually tell your story because the alternative - grey and white excel charts - just won’t cut it.

Even if you don’t have a graphic designer or lots of money to create these images you do need to put in the time if you are preparing this information for a broader audience. 

Through this process you will likely find data that rises to the forefront, while other data is less important.  This is a helpful activity to go through to succinctly present your case.  More images are a good thing!

If your presentation on donor data is successful, the audience will end up focusing on what’s beyond the baseline and start acting on a solid, fact-based strategy.    

About the Author: Christine Parker Hunt is a principal at Xceede Solutions. She has worked in programming and fundraising in the nonprofit space for more than 20 years. Contact her at







Strategic Planning and the Wisdom of Yogi Berra

Saranah Holmes


The late great Yogi Berra had a way with words.  One Yogi-ism I invoke on almost a daily basis with my clients is “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”  More crudely put, it’s important to have a vision – a goal – without that, you’re basically wandering aimlessly.  Just as important, however, is the path you’ll take to get there – a plan.

In the social sector, one of the most powerful tools an organization can have in its arsenal is the Logic Model framework.  Ok, so for those of you who are familiar with logic models, you may be wondering why I’m not talking about Theory of Change.  First, let’s quickly discuss the difference between the two.

A logic model is a model that logically explains how the work you’re doing is expected to lead to desired results.  The illustration below outlines a logic model in its purest form and can be applied at the organization level but is most commonly used to represent program activities and their outputs and outcomes.  These models can get quite detailed but they are incredibly useful as a starting point when designing evaluations and performance management systems.

A theory of change is slightly more complicated.  A theory of change is essentially a logic model with higher expectations – the relationships between the components (activities, outputs, outcomes) are causal.  This can be a lot harder to produce since outcomes are so often influenced by factors outside your program or control.  So, I tend to use the term Theory of Change a little more loosely and consider it simply a high level explanation of how your work is expected to help achieve your vision.  In short, it states how we’ll get “from here to there.”

To sum this up, think back to grade school, when we learned about squares and rectangles.  A Theory of Change is a kind of Logic Model but not every Logic Model is a Theory of Change.

My dream is a world in which every social enterprise has a clearly articulated theory of change (currently, only about half of nonprofits do) AND uses logic models to design, improve, and communicate about its programs.  If you are in the naughty 50 percent, here are a few reasons why you should consider drafting a logic model sooner rather than later:

  • CLARITY:  What is our work really about? What are we seeking to achieve and how will we will we get there?
  • VALUE:  How is our program addressing the problem area? Why should a donor invest in us?
  • IMPROVEMENT:  Is what we’re doing working? Should we continue doing this, in this way?
  • ALIGNMENT:  Are we all working toward the same goal(s)? How does everyone’s work in the organization fit in to the broader vision?

If you’re not convinced, one more reason to get on the bandwagon is that logic models are a great way to capture the history of your organization and learn from it.  All organizations are constantly evolving and logic models are living frameworks.  The model can serve as a stake in the ground – a snapshot of your work at a point in time.  If you make a major adjustment to a program, or to the approach of the organization as a whole, create a new version of that logic model.  Eventually, you’ll have a valuable timeline and an account of what worked and didn’t work in the past.  You might even find that your new programs aren’t all that new and thinking “It’s like déjà vu all over again!”

Disappearing Donors? Smart Tactics for Sustainable Solutions

Saranah Holmes

By Wendy Merrill, Strategy Horse Consulting Group

Several weeks ago the Baltimore Business Journal published an alarming piece highlighting the fact that nonprofits' donor retention rates continue to remain below 50% over the last 10 years.

To me, this illustrates the fact that competition among non-profits is exponentially stiffer than that facing in the for-profit sector. 
So what can these organizations do to vie for our already stretched dollar?  

Think like a business. 

Successful businesses become so through customer engagement.  Engagement can take on many forms, but the common denominator always comes down to reciprocity. 
The traditional scenario has been:
Business offers a product or service to prospective customer.  Customer is intrigued by their individualized perception of value.  Business succeeds in convincing customer to buy by conveying value (what’s in it for the customer).  Customer pays business and business grows revenue and develops advocates. 
Once upon a time it was enough that a non-profit delivered an emotive pitch to its donors and the heartstrings always led to the opening of wallets.  These days it seems that there are countless new non-profits established every day.  This means that competition for an already thinly stretched dollar is now fiercer than ever.  And what has the philanthropic sector done to prepare for this stiff competition?
Not enough.
Everyone has a passionate story and there is no cause that is more important than another.  Theoretically we all have the desire to open both our hearts and our bank accounts to anyone in need.  The fact is, however, that most of us have limited budgets and need to be choosy as to where we spend them.  So how does a non-profit grab a cherished donor and then hold on to them?  The mutual exchange of value. 

The director of a local organization that raises money to fight cancer asks a contact for an introduction to a substantial potential donor.  The introduction is made and the director is poised to make her pitch.  Her pitch is a polished soliloquy about the benevolence of the charity…their geographical reach…their low expenses.  At the end of her story she makes “the ask” for a healthy donation and receives the lukewarm response of “I’ll have to think about it.”
For a salesperson in the for-profit world, those six words equal failure.   
Let’s try another approach.
How about if the same director connects with the potential donor and before delivering her pitch, she focuses the conversation entirely on the donor.  What do they do?  Where are they from?  What is important to them personally?  What about professionally?  What charities have they been involved with in the past?   What was their satisfaction level with these experiences? 
In addition to making a real difference in furthering the non-profit organization’s mission, what else could the organization, board or director do for the donor that would make their commitment even more meaningful to them?
See the difference?  Reciprocity.
I wager that if more non-profits trained their development professionals, boards and staffers in this style of solicitation, their donor retention rates would skyrocket—and their recruitment efforts would be cut dramatically due to the network of “ambassadors for the cause” that would organically grow all on its own.