We offer simple advice on how to use big data to supercharge fundraising efforts, increase reach, boost impact, and influence government policies
Big data refers to large amounts of data from a wide variety of sources that organisations can access. Because of the sheer quantity and variety of this data, as well as the high rate at which it is generated, it is not always practical to make use of big data in traditional ways.
So charities should use big data analytics systems, which are designed to handle huge amounts of data in different formats. These systems allow charities and other organisations to turn an otherwise bewildering mound of information into something of genuine value by drawing insights.
This means that patterns, trends, and correlations – often unexpected ones – can be revealed. Armed with such insights, charity leaders can make data-driven decisions rather than having to rely on instinct.
To benefit from big data, your charity needs three things: a desire to carry out analytics, a store of big data to analyse, and the digital tools to carry out big data analytics and draw insights from that data.
The point about big data is that any and all data is potentially useful. Because many insights are unexpected, you can’t always predict what data will be needed to reveal insights.
This, in turn, implies that no data your charity collects should ever be discarded – unless you are compelled to – and that every opportunity should be taken to collect and save data.
There are some common types of data that almost all charities should collect so they can use it for big data analytics. These include:
There are many ways that the information can be captured. Donor data, for example, can be available from a constituent relationship management (CRM) or donor management system, or from information submitted on a web page. Service user data may be captured from questionnaires filled in when signing up for a particular service.
In addition to data your charity collects, you can supplement your big data store with externally generated data sets. Many of these are available at no cost. Examples of useful data set sources include:
A classic example of the unexpected insights that can be surfaced by big data comes from retailing giant Walmart. While exploring a big data store that included sales records and weather information, Walmart discovered a previously unknown correlation between extreme weather events and sales of strawberry Pop-Tarts.
Unexpectedly, the company discovered that sales of these food items tend to increase seven-fold shortly before hurricanes, enabling the company to boost stock levels at stores in hurricanes’ paths to maximise profits and ensure supply meets customer demands.
Big data can be particularly useful when it comes to fundraising – the lifeblood of almost all charities. For example, your charity may be able to combine data about donor demographics such as age, gender, household income, occupation, and location with other data about current world events, television viewing habits, internet usage trends, and many other types of data that may seem irrelevant.
By analysing all this data, the hope is that it will be possible to gain some new insights into typical fundraising questions. Charities may gain insights on the following questions, for example:
Sometimes the insights big data analysis produces may be as hard to explain as they are unexpected. For example, it may show that the best day to contact existing donors is on a Wednesday. Determining the reason may need some investigation, but even without an explanation this information can still be useful and, crucially, can still be acted on.
Of course, big data analysis is not just useful for fundraising.
It can also help your charity to find and target potential new service users to increase your charity’s reach, identify the areas where it can make the biggest impact, and even provide solid evidence to back up efforts to create or change government policies in the field in which your charity operates.
Data scientists are experts at the analysis of data, but even if your charity does not have the resources to employ one you can gain insights from your data using one of the many big data analytics systems that are available. These include:
If you feel your charity lacks the skills, time, or resources to carry out big data analysis for itself, you can get help from outside to let you get the most from your data. Possible sources include: