7 Keys to Using Big Data in Your Nonprofit

June 30, 2015Alec Green

The story of how Target Corporation began predicting their customers’ pregnancies is the most recent, talked-about example of how the for-profit sector is using big data. Through careful analysis, they determined the buying behaviors common to women in their early pregnancies and began sending marketing offers for baby products before the other stores, and even some family members, knew the women were pregnant.

Stories like these have brought a lot of attention to the concept of big data and its role in marketing and organizational strategy.  But the principles of big data aren’t limited to big businesses like Target.  Nonprofit organizations of all sizes are tapping into big data to improve various parts of the organization from marketing to donor management to HR and operations. In our recent NonprofitReady.org webinar “Big Data for Nonprofits,”  Max Simkoff, VP of Analytics at Cornerstone On Demand outlines 7 keys to help you turn big data into measurable results.

  1. Choose a Statistician: You don’t have to have a candidate who has an impressive degree from a prestigious university. You simply need someone who has learned the basics of statistics, either during their college education or through free courses such as those offered by Coursera. You can even use free resources to provide training for promising employees you already have on board.
  2. Choose the Software: You’ll need some kind of software program to collect, aggregate and help analyze the data. Aside from Excel worksheets and other standard programs you already have, there are programs specifically designed to handle big data statistics and predictions. You might have limited funds, but Simkoff offers some recommendations about open source software that can help you get started.
  1. Decide What You Want to Learn from the Statistic: Start with a hypothesis and craft a research question whose result will push your organization forward.  These questions could include:
    • Who will stick around for the long term.
    • Who will perform better.
    • How employees connect with each other.
    • Who will be better learners and stay in compliance with learning objectives.
    • Who will perform better in their jobs.
    • What kinds of incentive pay produces better productivity.
    • Who is most likely to be promoted.
  1. Start with a Simple Question: You already know you need to start with a question that is predictive in nature. If the question is a complex one, you need to do several simpler analyses to introduce your team to the process and test and learn about your system before you move on to more complex subjects.
  1. Align the Inquiry to Your Organization’s Mission: To get the most pertinent results, you need to concentrate on data that can help you accomplish the core goals of your organization. Look at your mission carefully to find the questions that will show whether you’re meeting your goals or not. This is the kind of information you can use most powerfully to start the process of improving your NPO.
  1. Start with Clean Data: You can have several sources of data, but you need to be sure that the data you use is accurate. To ensure reliable data, check the data first for inconsistencies that might exist in that area of inquiry. To cite Simkoff’s example, you can’t use the dates of hire as reliable data if their hire date of a former employee is recorded as being after their termination date.
  2. Make Sure Your Data Is Entered And Tracked In The Same Way Throughout Your Organization: This one is most important if you have a large nonprofit organization, especially one with several chapters or divisions. Otherwise, you’ll be comparing data from one part of the organization with data that isn’t consistent with data from other parts of your organization.

You might have heard about the way Netflix created “House of Cards” using big data techniques. They analyzed viewer data and found that the people who were the most devoted Netflix viewers preferred political dramas, Kevin Spacy, and director David Fincher. They put all three factors in the same series and the rest is history.

If you want to have that kind of success in your nonprofit, get into the big data frame of mind. Start with small, simple questions and see what insights you can uncover from within the walls of your own organization.

To learn more about this emerging field, view our webinar “Big Data in Nonprofits” on NonProfitReady.org.

About Alec Green

As Chief Marketing Evangelist, Alec Green is responsible for developing the overall marketing plan and strategy for the Foundation, executing all outbound communications, increasing visibility of the Foundation’s programs, and building engagement with our partners... more


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