Especially over the last few years, the buzz around the importance of being data-driven in the nonprofit sector has risen to a frenzy – and not just for digital marketers, fundraisers, and tech professionals.
There’s good reason for that: Whether you’re tracking your step count, your sleep, your favorite music, or your food intake, data analysis has infiltrated our everyday lives. In the nonprofit space, today’s CRM tools and technologies are more sophisticated than ever, generating a wealth of data that can help maximize your digital fundraising, marketing, advocacy, and acquisition.
But even the savviest number-crunchers can struggle with translating that data into meaningful, actionable, and easily understood insights – and that context is essential to helping people understand the data – and more importantly, why it matters.
The good news is that it’s easier than you think to help you communicate the story your data is telling. Here are three guidelines our team uses to make sure our data narratives are as helpful and actionable as possible:
1. Know what data (and metadata!) your nonprofit can trust
Often, digital marketers and fundraisers are inheriting a database full of information with varying levels of sourcing and reliability, and/or a set of tools with varying levels of functionality and data syncing between systems. If that’s the case for you, it’s likely that some of that data could be misleading. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to find smart and actionable insights – it just means you need to know which data points in your system are always reliable, sometimes reliable, or possibly misleading.
For example, if you know that you’re rock solid on dates and times of contributions and that channel sourcing is spotty or incomplete, focus on the timeframe and gift level. Or, if you know that origin source might not be available to help inform your retention and ROI analysis, look to creation or first gift date.
Making sure you can trust your data is step one before diving into the analysis and storytelling. Even with foundational data points, you can power actionable analysis that is both compelling and accurate!
2. Start with the questions your team is really asking
There are endless and fascinating ways you can slice and dice even narrow data sets. But within that, focus on your team’s most urgent priorities and questions. As you plan and design the reports and visualizations that will ground your data narrative, ask your team which questions they have about recent campaigns, as well as the hunches they have about what strategies and growth they suspect is possible on the road ahead. The firehose of data (and analysis) can be tempting, but try to focus on the metrics that matter most to your team’s strategy.
3. Avoid the cardinal sin of analysis – numbers without context!
We’ve all seen that slide (or dashboard block): A huge number in bolded, 60-point font, and … nothing else. Now, if everyone looking at that number knows what it means, no problem. But you can help your team have a more strategic understanding of results if you visualize the data in a way that offers context about goals, baselines, and growth.
First, make sure that your performance visualizations include year-over-year comparisons of the same metric, as well as comparison lines that visualize either relevant benchmarks or internal goals. Second, use the questions that matter most to your team to ground your visualizations as titles and explanatory text. Leaning on those questions to frame your data’s narrative and using metrics, benchmarks, charts, and other data visualizations to help you answer them sparks understanding and discussion – and the transformative insights that can maximize your program’s performance.