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Author Interview: Data Driven Nonprofits by Steve MacLaughlin

Steve MacLaughlin is the best-selling author of Data Driven Nonprofits, a guide book for organisations that want to improve their performance and increase positive change in the world.

In this Q&A, he demystifies the world of analytics and reveals how big data can drive even the smallest of charities.

Why did you decide to write the book?

Not for profits are vital to making meaningful change in the world and have significant amounts of untapped potential in their data. Unfortunately, many lack the strategies, skills, and guidance to make better decisions based on their data.

Over the past few years, I’ve read just about every book in print on the subject of Big Data and analytics. Jill Dyche’s book on Customer Data Integration. Thomas Davenport’s Analytics at Work and Big Data at Work. John Foreman’s Data Smart. Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics. But there was something missing from all these books. No one had really looked how nonprofit organizations use data and how they can overcome barriers to success. I felt that someone needed to explain how we got here, why certain challenges persist, and how nonprofits can improve their results by being more data driven. All of this told me that I needed to try and write Data Driven Nonprofits.

How do nonprofits get started being more data driven?

It all begins with quality data. If you start out with bad data, then things never get better — only worse. Start with the building blocks like contact, biographical, and descriptive data. Move up to using more predictive and prescriptive analytics. Fortunately, keeping your address, deceased, phone, email, and other key pieces of data is very affordable. In many cases, nonprofits end up saving money because health data reduces bad mailings or campaigns that never reach anyone. There are several other things that I outline in the book, but data health is the most important first step.

Is Big Data just something for large organizations?

In short, no. During the course of writing the book, I interviewed people from all types of nonprofit organizations. From large to small and serving very different causes around the globe. The size of the organization had very little to do with how important their use of data was at the nonprofit. For example, the Denver Rescue mission is over a hundred years old, but for most of its history it was a very small organization. Up until 1987, it had four employees and an annual budget of $200,000. Today, Denver Rescue Mission has more than 180 employees and operates an annual budget over $30 million. A lot of their fundraising success is a result of focusing on data, metrics, and a growth mindset. This focus on being data driven is absolutely not just for large nonprofits.

What was the biggest thing that surprised you while writing the book?

When I began interviewing people across the nonprofit sector it was surprising how many successful organizations weren’t sure just how data driven they were being. But as we talked about their strategy and day-to-day operations it became clear how central using data to drive decisions had become. When using data, information, and insights becomes a habit, then it just becomes second nature. As nonprofits take those first steps to being more data driven, then there will be change management challenges. But over time they won’t be able to imagine not using data more as a part of their decision making and measurement practices.

Steve MacLaughlin is Director of Analytics at Blackbaud and best-selling author of Data Driven Nonprofits. He regularly features as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, Bloomberg, and has appeared on National Public Radio.

Steve is a frequent speaker at nonprofit events and serves on the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Board of Directors which supports both the growth and professionalism of the nonprofit technology field as well as building knowledge and information sharing capacity throughout the sector.

Steve shares the ‘Secrets of Data-Driven Nonprofits’, in a 60 minute webinar, which features case studies of organisations of all sizes, using data to achieve success.

Watch it anytime HERE.

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