Big Data For Small Organizations

I’ve seen a lot of chatter in the business media about how this will be the year of “big data.” One post, by the McKinsey Global Institute, suggests that Big data: [is] the next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.” Of course this post is referring to the private sector and huge data sets, but it got me wondering – are there any “Big Data” implications for non-profits and membership organizations?

Can small organizations think BIG about data?

While small organizations may not have “BIG DATA,” perhaps they can start to “think big” about their data. I’m no data nerd, but I do follow a number of data management experts online, such as: Beth Kanter, Debra Askanase, Katie Delahaye Paine and Wes Trochlil. In fact, in a post last year about member databases – Is your member data mission critical? – we quoted Beth Kanter who suggests organizations need to create a “data-informed culture.” This advice is also echoed by Debra Askanase who offered a great post on Why embracing data should be an important part of your leadership strategy.”

But thinking big about your data is about more than just looking at your member or donor database, it’s about finding ways to leverage all of the data your organization gathers. In a wonderful slide presentation (hat tip to Beth Kanter), What Does The Data Say George Weiner, CTO, at DoSomething.Org reminds us that “all orgs need to look at the data you have available and make it actionable.” You need to:

  1. Gather
  2. Analyze
  3. Act

GATHER: what data does your organization capture?

The reality for small associations, clubs or other membership organizations, is that while they may not have what would be considered “big data” to manage or massage, they certainly do have important data…

There are lists or databases of contacts or constituents, such as:

  • Members
  • Prospective members
  • Donors
  • Sponsors
  • Volunteers
  • Event registrants
  • Event sponsors

And of course the financial transactions related to these contacts:

  • membership fees
  • event fees
  • donations, etc.

There is also social data or metrics that you might be gathering:

  • website analytics
  • social media sharing

There is your mission-driven data, such as:

  • for charities – donations received; project/program results (e.g., wells drilled; shelters built, etc.)
  • lobbying efforts (e.g., issues raised; poll results, etc.)
  • for associations – program and service outcomes

Are you sharing?

Sometimes, the challenge for a small-staff or volunteer-led organization isn’t the data gathering, but the actual sharing. Data management may be occurring in silos – with different volunteers or staff managing different types of data. If this is the case, the challenge is to identify the types of data (who has what?) and determine the best way to pull these together to reap the benefits of analysis.

ANALYZE – what can your data tell you?

Again, we can refer to some of our favorite data management gurus for some examples of and guidance on the types of data analysis you might consider and what’s involved:

  • In a recent #Commbuild Twitter Chat on Measurement and Learning, Beth Kanter tweeted: “1st step with measurement is defining success and results. How do you define success for your online community?” “[S]preadsheet ninja skills, data jutjitsu skills, AND visualization are going to be part of work skills”

Note – if you don’t have any data nerds on staff, perhaps one of your volunteers might have data analysis skills?

  • In a recent post, “Relevance is the key to understanding your audience,” Wes Trochlil suggests:

“…presumably you are tracking all financial transactions occurring between your organizations and your members and customers, e.g., event registration, product sales, certifications, etc. These financial transactions tell you a lot about what is relevant to your members and customers. All of your sales should be categorized by “interest area” in order to understand what issues are relevant to the buyers.”

Once you have a better understanding of what is relevant to your members and customers, you can now start tailoring your marketing messages based on that information. …By tailoring the message you increase the relevance to the recipient. And by using the data in your database to increase relevance to your recipients, you’ll be assured of cutting through the noise and having your message heard.”

  • In How Nonprofits Should Be using Data, Debra Askanase offers help “getting started with data gathering” including a sample DIY worksheet for that “offers sample questions to get you started thinking in the areas of marketing, programs and services, development, and volunteers and advocacy.”
  • In a recent NTEN post (an excerpt from an NTEN:Change article), Katie Delahaye Paine suggests: “A simple rule of thumb is that you should spend more time learning from your data than gathering it. When you get your data, make sure you understand why things happen. This doesn’t mean that you need to prove causality, most of the time a simple correlation will do. The important thing is that you think through the results, analyze them for insights and learning, and, most of all, look for failures.
    …More importantly, don’t just develop a discipline around collecting data: make sure you are similarly disciplined about analyzing it. Your goal is to look at what you’ve collected and generate insights. That requires reflection, not just counting.

ACT: you’ve got data, now what?

So, if you are able to gather and analyze your data, where will this lead you? By getting a “big picture” view across your available data, you can use these insights to enhance, revise and innovate programs and services for members and supporters. For example, it might help you…

Communicate more effectively.

By developing a better understanding of your constituents you can:

  • tailor messaging (to potential and existing donors or members)
  • segment your audience for targeted communications
  • identify the most effective forms of social media for your audience
  • create online communities and encourage member/supporter interaction and dialog to meet identified issues or needs

Enhance, revise, innovate programs and services for members and supporters.

By taking a close look at, for example, your attendance and survey data, membership organizations can identify the most or least popular programs and/or services so that you can adjust your programming accordingly. This might include:

  • Events: reviewing event data across a number of events (e.g., attendance of members/supporters at the various events; satisfaction data, etc.) and looking at any of your member satisfaction surveys might help you determine how to best improve upcoming events (e.g., topics that were effective; dates that worked better; formats that offer increased networking opportunities, etc.)
  • Programs: looking at member data (in terms of program usage, satisfaction, financial viability) or looking at data across a number of non-profit programs, might spark innovation, and at the very least can help you fine-tune your existing offering(s) or even determine that you need more of this good thing!

Demonstrate openness or transparency.

It’s also important to share details with members or supporters. Donors, funders and members appreciate transparency – they want to hear the details on the impact their member fees or donations are having on the organization’s mission.

As Katie Delahaye Paine suggests in Learn From Each Other, Not Just the Data, “Reflecting does not have to be a private activity. It can be done in connected, transparent ways.” So once you gather, analyze and act, you should also share what you learn from your data analysis. share the learning and the lessons and ask for feedback from your members or supporters.

So – think big about your data

If you can use your data to better understand your audience and your activities, you can not only improve your membership or fundraising outreach, but you can also work more effectively towards achieving your mission and/or better serving your constituency.

This article was originally published at and is reprinted with permission.

Lori Halley
Wild Apricot