Connecting the Dots of Nonprofit Engagement Data: A Closer Look at Practices, Challenges, and Opportunities

Report published June 4, 2013 in Data Integration

Flickr: waywuweiFlickr: waywuweiNonprofit organizations are looking beyond traditional data toward information about constituent participation and engagement. Such data might include volunteer activity, e-newsletter activity, Facebook or Twitter mentions, online petitions or pledge activities, event attendance and interaction among constituents, to name only a few.

NTEN and Avectra sought input from 10 nonprofits and associations that vary in size and work across many programmatic areas for specific examples of how they are collecting, managing and sharing engagement data -- and how it impacts their work.

We’ve compiled their responses around seven key questions, and are sharing the findings, and their stories, below.

I. What types of engagement data are nonprofits collecting and, more importantly, why?

The organizations that provided input collect a broad range of engagement data, such as but not limited to:

  • Website analytics and e-newsletter subscriptions, open rates and click-throughs
  • Social media mentions, "likes" and sharing
  • Press release responses
  • Grantee operations and demographics
  • Event registrations, including webinars and other virtual events
  • Membership - joins, renewals, membership type/category
  • Community activity - discussion forum participation
  • Relationships between and among constituent groups
  • Customer requests (via phone and email) and customer survey results
  • Product sales
  • Volunteer participation

Participants agreed that engagement data collection relates directly to their organizational goals and objectives, including the capability to:

  • identify trends and leverage them to shape existing programs and create new ones that best meet member needs
  • gauge and report effectiveness and outcomes in order to meet funding and revenue goals and
  • better focus and allocate resources

One respondent, whose organization's mission is to lower the high school drop-out rate in Canada, has been doing "pretty extensive" tracking since it was founded in 2001. "Additional funding is not possible without metrics."

The League of American Orchestras' (The League) Rebecca Vierhaus told us her organization is "trying to find trends to tie participation to revenue, as well as participation to likelihood of renewing membership or donating….We have always imagined a 'learning journey' for our members -- becoming more and more engaged over time and eventually becoming donors or supporters in other ways. Is this how our members actually engage with us and, if not, what should our strategy be to try and keep them on a 'conveyor belt' towards loyalty and engagement?"

Shoes That Fit's Thomas Pellegrino said his organization uses the data to "communicate our mission and message and develop our communication strategies."

II. How, and how often, are nonprofits collecting engagement data?

Data tracking, defined as collection in a systematic way so that data can be accessed for analysis, among the organizations we heard from happens through a combination of automated and manual practices. Several groups use CRM systems as well as Microsoft Excel. One group, which funds legal aid programs, collects data from grantees via its online grants management system, built on an SQL Server database.

Shoes That Fit's Pellegrino said about 75 percent of its data is stored in some electronic retrieval system and 25 percent is stored "in other areas -- either in our heads or in our notebooks or just in company knowledge."

Although data is tracked routinely by the nonprofits, timeframes for collection range from daily to quarterly.

The processes for compiling data from multiple sources are more labor intensive, nearly all agree. At NTEN, "For data that hasn't historically been gathered [in our CRM], our ideal solution is to create an integration that will allow this data to be automatically collected and stored." Other organizations, too, are feeding data into their CRMs using external APIs.

Although data is tracked routinely by the nonprofits, timeframes for collection range from daily to quarterly.

III. How are nonprofits sharing and reporting data within their organizations?

Reporting engagement data presents challenges. "Compilation is a manual and time-intensive process," said The League's Vierhaus. "Most of this data is exported from various sources, manipulated and analyzed in Excel." It is not shared on a specific schedule but as reports are completed or strategic discussions call for it.

The justice advocacy organization using an online grants management system has hired a new staff member to address data reporting. "We have a dramatic need for good, current data and a laborious effort in place to do the reporting. Grant applications have to be reviewed and monitored by a lot of different people. We are in the business of collecting, evaluating, analyzing and comparing data to external data sources; our central business processes revolve around it." Yet, the current system has "very poor reporting capabilities" that results in "data all over the place -- in Excel, Access, a data warehouse built on the remnants of our prior system, Word, you name it."

NTEN uses an organizational dashboard to track many key metrics, "but in its current form there's not a very strong focus on measuring engagement/participation across all our different programs," said IT Director Karl Hedstrom, who currently is overhauling the dashboard "so it [will] give a better sense of how our community is engaged with us."

"One of the challenges is just getting the data out of the system in order to see the results," said Pellegrino of Shoes That Fit.

"One of the challenges is just getting the data out of the system in order to see the results," said Pellegrino of Shoes That Fit. "There is a learning curve, but we are experiencing the additional growing pains of a completely new system to our organization." Getting the right data to the right people has been difficult. "Development staff deals with donation information and social media data. Program deals with specific donation information (items) as well as volunteers and sponsor groups and the schools we help. [It is] an enormous project to try and keep tabs on a moving target: people."

Several groups reported little sharing of data across departments. "We have dashboards that users can log into and see only what pertains to them. Logins are issued by request of a manager for a direct report that has a business need," said one respondent.

"Share, not really. We have a specific department that is very interested in the data and willing to take the time to learn the data, but there's not a ton of interaction and activity beyond that," said another.

Yet another organization is trying to improve direct data access for staff by using a library of "base queries" stored in their CRM.

IV. What have the data taught, and how has it impacted organizations' work?

Nearly all organizations reported gleaning new insights—some of them surprising—and making or planning to make tactical course adjustments. The justice advocacy organization is reorganizing departments that work most closely with grantees, including grant review and compliance; it's also merging its information technology and information management offices and centralizing data to improve reporting.

Several nonprofits have identified opportunities around the targeting, timing and messaging of communications to specific constituencies, such as newer members or members who donate often but do not attend conferences. As a result, these nonprofits are undertaking (or eliminating) related marketing campaigns.

Nonprofits have learned harder lessons as well. NTEN's Hedstrom, for instance, found "measuring participation/engagement is much more complicated than we first imagined, and instead of being able to find a single scale for this, it's likely we'll end up with several segments of community members that are engaged in very different ways."

"It's become clear we need to operate in a truly member-centric way. . . By constantly bringing forward data about what our members want, need and are actually [using], we can no longer rely on anecdotes to make decisions."

One group was surprised to see just how riddled with duplicates and inconsistencies its data were. Another organization realized "late in the game" that key fields and, therefore, related reports about two of its most critical areas are not visible in its current Salesforce implementation.

At a fourth nonprofit, "it's become clear we need to operate in a truly member-centric way, but that we [currently] don't. By constantly bringing forward data about what our members want, need and are actually [using], we can no longer rely on anecdotes to make decisions."

V. How does engagement data relate to traditional data?

Responding nonprofits agreed that participation data and traditional data "relate directly." So much so that for one respondent, "Our overarching goal is to leave our donor database behind and move to [a new CRM] to unify, within a single system, all our financial, membership, fundraising, program and engagement data."

"Volunteers and fundraising are essential to our mission and getting shoes onto the feet of children in need," said Pellegrino of Shoes That Fit. "We don't separate the two constituencies in our data; participation/engagement data go hand in hand with our donor data."

Engagement data at The League is "really a combination of all other 'traditional' data, we've just taken it and connected the dots and married it with external data such as customer satisfaction surveys," said Vierhaus. "We want to weave it together to form a big picture and use that to impact our large strategic decisions."

Engagement data at The League is "really a combination of all other 'traditional' data, we've just taken it and connected the dots and married it with external data such as customer satisfaction surveys," said Vierhaus. "We want to weave it together to form a big picture and use that to impact our large strategic decisions."

VI. What do nonprofits hope to learn from engagement data going forward?

Many of the organizations that shared their experience reported they were early in the process of collecting, analyzing and using non-traditional data. Overall, nonprofits are still looking for connections and "happy accidents" and opportunities between and among data points and constituent groups.

Engagement data is helping the nonprofits we interviewed identify constituent needs, motivations, and values. It's improving decision making, and it's helping staff develop and tweak programs and services to meet those constituent needs. As Vierhaus of The League said, "Our programs, content, and access points will be more suited to what our members value, and our staff and resources will be used more efficiently."

VII. What are nonprofits' next steps with engagement data?

Most groups reported specific plans related to participation data, although not without challenges to overcome in the interim. Sore points include, not surprisingly, time, technology and expertise. Respondents would like "better tracking tools that are affordable" in addition to more staff time to identify, collect and synthesize the right data and for set-up of more efficient tracking tools. "The greatest challenge," said one respondent, "really is the number of 'moves' required to make things happen, to move the big strategy forward while achieving today's tactical aims."

"The greatest challenge," said one respondent, "really is the number of 'moves' required to make things happen, to move the big strategy forward while achieving today's tactical aims."

Over the coming year, responding organizations said they will be busy with a number of priorities. "Getting a full CRM engagement tracking foundation laid...[so] we can start attacking verticals and pursing opportunities, building on that foundation," said one respondent.

"Website analytics and user insights" will be a focus for one organization.

At The League, "We will continue to focus on the basic areas of engagement -- program participation, social media, e-marketing, customer service -- and will place an even greater emphasis on external member research about the value of our programs and services. We hope to use this combination of data to be more strategic and efficient in our messaging and access points for engagement, especially for member groups currently underserved and under-engaged," Vierhaus said.

Shoes That Fit plans to focus on developing staff capabilities "to be able to get back meaningful, accurate reports on the data already in our system," Pellegrino said, "and developing new reports and refining existing reporting functions that enhance our understanding of the data [we have] so that it's useful."

Another nonprofit also plans to focus on staff development. "Training staff on how to use and accept our new tools will be where we spend our time and effort. We cannot work any harder, we must work smarter."

This research was co-sponsored by NTEN and Avectra as a follow-up to the survey conducted earlier this year. You can find the results of the survey in this free, graphic report.

For this “closer look,” we asked 10 organizations to share their practices, results, and key challenges in response to ten open-ended questions via an online questionnaire, by invitation only. We have compiled and summarized their responses in this article.

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