Interest in data mining and analytics in fundraising is very high, so why are so few organizations doing it themselves? There are places run by people who just don’t get it, where innovation of any kind faces an uphill battle, but I doubt that hostility and indifference to new things really explains it. The skill level probably isn’t there for many organizations, but skills can be learned if there is a genuine interest in making the investment. Training is available, and it doesn’t have to be necessarily expensive training, even for the one-on-one variety. So lack of training doesn’t explain it either.
What I think it comes down to is aptitude. Working in this field does seem to require a certain type of mind. Not a mathematical mind necessarily, but a mind that feeds on concepts, a mind that is creative and always curious about the measurable, the quantifiable, the comparable — and often a good deal more.
An aptitude for analytics may not be acquirable in the way a skill is, but I do think it can be discovered, developed, and fostered. Are you an employee of a nonprofit, interested in developing an in-house data mining project? Or are you an employer or someone else responsible for managing employees whom you wish to encourage in this direction? Here are five elements that I think are important for getting there.
1. Time for personal projects. You may be familiar with the example of Google, famous for requiring that its engineers spend 20 percent of their time working on personal technology projects unrelated to their primary projects. You probably use a few of the free resources that have resulted from that practice. I don’t see nonprofits ever going that far, but some version of the idea might be possible. Is there a down time in your year? When I was a prospect researcher, summers were usually quiet as people went on vacation and fewer development visits were happening. That’s when I pursued my interest in data mining, and it seemed to be best time to build models for the Annual Fund. Don’t let “slack time” go to waste! If something new interests you, go for it.
If you’re the boss: Maybe only one or two employees out of ten will have the mindset for independent, creative work that will allow them to make use of unstructured time. Probably all you can do is provide some shelter for this development to take place. During relatively quiet periods, don’t assign busy work to creative people, and don’t insist that they take vacation only during those times.
2. An eye on business problems. Your personal projects may be exploratory and research-based, but you will go much farther if you ally your interests with the cause of addressing real business problems. Study your organization’s annual plan, and identify project ideas that deal with bottom-line fundraising goals and priorities.
If you’re the boss: Have an annual plan, first of all, and communicate it to employees. Encourage thinking about how to reach goals. In the absence of creative thinking and new ideas, the annual plan is just a set of arbitrary targets restated year after year (“We will grow the program by 10% in the coming fiscal year …”).
3. Interesting challenges. Juggling the seating arrangements for 400 guests for a gala dinner is a challenge, but is it interesting? A creative person might find the challenge interesting the first time, but unless he or she can figure out a way to write an algorithm or something for doing it automatically in the future, the task will quickly turn to drudgery. As an employee, one of your most valuable questions is, “Is there a better way to do this?”
If you’re the boss: Recognize that you’ve got two types of employees, both valuable: The first type are the ones who carry out processes (juggling seat assignments for the gala), and the second type are the ones who actually design or change those processes. The first type gets the work done; the second type defines what work looks like in the future. Innovation is designing new and better ways to get work done. As an employer, one of the best tasks to give a creative worker is, “Find a better way to do this.”
4. Reaching outside the organization. If you’re the only one who does your job at your institution, or no one else in your institution understands the nature of your work interests, you will need to cultivate professional connections outside your own group. At no time in history has this been more possible. The internet has made distance irrelevant. You’re reading a blog, so I don’t need to belabour the point.
If you’re the boss: Encourage networking, or at least don’t discourage it. This includes making the investment in sending employees to conferences, signing up for webinars, paying for memberships in professional organizations, and (most important for data mining) investing in one-on-one training. Are employees with external connections more likely to leave? I don’t think so — I think the benefits of allowing talented employees to acquire what they need to do their jobs effectively outweighs the risk of having them network their way to their next job.
5. Willingness to sell. A data mining effort may fail in the application — the people who ought to be using the scores aren’t, for whatever reason. They don’t understand the concept, or they’re uncomfortable with it, or whatever. Don’t assume that they’re at fault. Consider that it’s your job to educate others about the practice and aims of analytics. Do internal presentations, circulate interesting findings, meet face-to-face to argue the case for making better use of data. Don’t cry “obstructionism” at the first signs of opposition. Explain, explain, explain.
If you’re the boss: You can smooth the way by facilitating this sort of knowledge sharing. Are there regular staff meetings which employees may use as a venue for discussing their work? It’s wonderful if you can be an advocate for data-driven decision-making yourself, but your creative employee should also always be ready to explain what they are up to.