Establishing a Data-Driven Culture at Your Nonprofit

Michael J. Buckley, CFRE

Changing or establishing a culture at an organization can be a herculean task. More often than not, the culture of your organization was established well before you came on board. For many professional fundraisers, especially at smaller nonprofits, the idea of a shift in focus or priority can be daunting and the ability to make that change may be out of your control. So, when nonprofit leaders think about establishing a culture within your organization where data is respected, embraced, and acted upon, it can seem like a daunting task.

Establishing Culture at Your Nonprofit

The culture at your nonprofit includes:

  • Your mission and vision
  • How you value your team of people
  • Your shared values

Often times however, organizations confuse “mission” with “culture.” The mission is the work your organization does while culture is the way we behave within an organization. Culture can be hard, if not impossible, to quantify. When professional fundraisers work to imbue a quantitative measure into a qualitative culture, a struggle may result.

Establishing or enhancing a data-driven culture must start with the philanthropy operation within your organization. This team must be the first to use data to make its own decisions and then seek buy-in from other areas of the organization. According to a June 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review,

Culture change can’t be achieved through a top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here.” Someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate opt.

What does a Data-Driven Culture look like?

A true data-driven culture may be easy to describe but can be hard to recognize. Data-driven cultures require:

  • Efficient gathering of accurate data
  • Appropriate storage of data
  • Ability to easily retrieve data
  • Capacity to analyze data

Most importantly, it requires that your organization use that data to make decisions that drive results forward. Results sometimes can be difficult to accept, but you must be willing to embrace them if you’re going to create change to increase impact at your organization.

In early 2018, the Society for Human Resource Management released an article: “Understanding and Developing Organizational Culture”. While the article speaks to an organization’s overall culture, many of the advantages highlighted relate to establishing a data-driven culture at your organization:

A strong culture can bring benefits such as enhanced trust and cooperation, fewer disagreements, and more efficient decision-making.

Data-driven cultures do just that. When nonprofit leaders share factual information with other departments within your organization, it builds trust between your department and others. Too often at nonprofit organizations, the rationale behind annual fundraising goals is simply the difference between program income and expenses. Data-driven cultures allow professional fundraisers to honestly predict income and make positive strategic decisions.

Why are data-driven cultures important?

Nonprofit leaders should work diligently to ascertain important data metrics and analyze the results. Two of the most powerful tools you can use are the Fundraising Effectiveness Project and the Fundraising Report Card. Both of these tools provide the user with both beginner and advanced metrics and allows for transparency and trust.

In my experience, I have found organizations that are driven (but not constrained) by data are the most creative and high-functioning nonprofits. Having information at your disposal that can accurately tell you about your organization’s performance is empowering. These organizations are able to use their time more effectively — not worrying about “where they are” or “how they’re doing.” They know, because they’ve used the data at their disposal to find out. Certainly, a data-driven culture has an effect on the fundraising side of the nonprofit.

But if used correctly, it can also have a positive effect on Marketing, Communications, Finance and even Operations. Above all else, it allows leadership to make smart, informed decisions at your organization. In my experience, after the development office, the Finance Office benefits the most from a culture where data is respected and embraced.

For example, organizations that know their donor retention rate (the percentage of donors who gave in 2017 and 2018), know their average gift (total dollars raised divided by the number of gifts),  and their growth in giving rate within that population can predict revenue. It’s certainly not an exact science, but your Finance team will appreciate some background for the budget numbers you’re providing. Conversely, you as a professional fundraiser can approach next year’s budget with an accurate prediction of revenue from fundraising.

Having the data is nowhere near enough — you have to create an action plan to drive towards increased efficiency and effectiveness. Understanding your data and having a plan to make positive change is one of the first steps to creating a culture that embraces data.

In a 2012 study in the Harvard Business Review called “The Evolution of Decision Making: How Leading Organizations Are Adopting a Data-Driven Culture”, more than half the respondents agreed or were indifferent about this statement: “My manager relies more on judgement/gut feel than data to make decisions.” For how many of us is this statement true at our organizations? While I would never advise to fully discount members of our organizations who are well aware of organizational history, in order for your organization to thrive you must make decisions based on the information you have and that you know to be true — data.

In that same report, more than 3/4 of respondents said using analytics:

  • increased productivity
  • reduced costs
  • allowed faster decision making

70% of respondents said the outcome was “Improved financial performance.” Why as nonprofit organizations are we not embracing the data that we have to make decisions that will lead to positive outcomes? Data-driven nonprofits allow us to focus our resources on the mission of the organization.

Getting Started

Establishing a data-driven culture should start slowly. Nonprofit leaders should embrace 3 to 5 simple metrics and use them into your work. I recommend nonprofits should begin by looking at:

  • Overall average gift
  • Donor retention
  • Donor conversion rates for appeals

Those 3 simple Fundraising Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are strong examples of basic metrics to establish goals around. Make decisions using those first metrics and increase your efforts and you’ll begin to see results and have “buy-in” from staff. Keep adding additional KPIs as your program and your culture matures.


Finally, I encourage you to personally strive towards being an “Analytical Leader” within your organization’s data-driven culture. As noted in the 2012 Harvard Business Review report, Analytical Leaders have “refined their decision-making processes as part of a data-driven culture and achieved superior financial results.” With a great deal of competition for donor dollars every day, establishing or growing a culture where data is captured, stored, analyzed, and utilized will pay dividends.

NeonCRM's Mission Control Dashboard gives you instant, easy-to-understand metrics — with the Fundraising KPIs built right in!

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