What non profits can learn from the obama campaign
Data, Non-Profits and the Obama’s CampaignThere is an important lesson non-profits can learn from the Obama campaign. Whilesome political pundits mocked a small group of Obama’s campaign staff, referring tothem as “martians,” the group repeatedly delivered results. Their prediction that Obamacould win Florida and Ohio prompted changes to the President’s schedule days before theelection. As election night ended Florida and Ohio had been won and the “martians”celebrated.In the election, analytics revealed the weaknesses of relying on traditional polling dataand previous voter behaviors as predictors. It also vividly demonstrated that using avariety of data sources models might provide a more comprehensive view of the “voter.”As post election news coverage explained how analytics had impacted the election onereporter remarked, the “martians have landed.”IT IS TIME TO CHANGEThere are several changes non-profits could and should to make to improve their fundingefforts. Using the process of analyzing available data might well alter the return on theinvested time and energy in raising funds. An increasing number of for-profit companiesrecognize the value which data has to impact their sales, customer service, productdevelopment, delivery schedule and even hiring staff. Most if not all non-profits wouldbenefit from using analytics to improve their funding, operations, personnel, grantmaking and even selecting volunteers to serve on their boards.Analytics is not new. It is a process of taking available data and running a series ofpredictive models to test whether assumptions are correct. Theoretically, the more dataadded the better the prediction becomes. What made the “martians” successful was afterbuilding predictive models they continually refined the models by adding more data.While some of the data came from private polls and interviews much of it came frompublic sources readily available simply for the asking.Depending on the type of non-profit organization the amount of collected data will vary,but it is there waiting to be used. Further, data collected by government, private andpublic sources is also available. Imagine a museum comparing its own data on its visitorsto national data about family vacation destinations, educational programs, economic data,data about neighborhoods, cities, housing, magazines and web sites visited. But beforenon-profits do any data crunching there are changes which need to be made regardingdata and analysis.Changing AttitudesMost likely the biggest challenge for non-profits is not the cost to hire a data specialist,gathering the data or the technology to analyze it, rather the attitude and belief about data.Arguably most important change that needs to occur is the need for executives toacknowledge and stress the importance for gathering and using data. Second, whenreplacing staff consider hiring staff that are outcome driven and enjoy analyzing data.
Third, the organization must be willing, should it be necessary, to break from the pastprocesses, especially when it comes to fund development, and to commit to usinganalytics to improve results.True, there is a cost to gather and collect data, primarily staff time, but the general lack ofor use of data is far more costly. Lacking data and the unwillingness to measure is andhas been far more detrimental, especially during this period in which many non-profitsare facing decreased funding from their typical funding sources. Far too many non-profits have succumbed to the challenges of measurement and have used the ill advisedexcuse they can not measure their program, the results or the impact.Executives should be driven to collect and use data throughout every level of theorganization, even in back office functions. Foundations, funding agencies, Federal andState governments are increasingly looking for data. Organizations need to examine andre-evaluate what data is collected on membership forms, from social media centers, whatdata is collected or evaluation forms, from general discussion with members or visitors,about how member’s pay dues or admission fees as well as general trends. The messagefrom the Chief Executive should be: Not having or not using data is no longer acceptable.Recruiting staffFrom newspaper stories about the Obama campaign after the election sheds some light onhow they valued data and recruited workers. The previous 2008 campaign had shownthe need and value of data. The way they recruited people who liked and knew how andwhere to gather data also is a lesson for non-profits. They did not spend a lot of moneyrecruiting instead issued a general notice on web sites which people who like to analyzedata visit that the campaign was seeking staff. The form prospects completed was shortbut focused. After getting a name and email address it asked the person to explain whythey liked gathering and analyzing data.What is preventing non-profits from recruiting and hiring specialist? Is it the overridingemphasis non-profits seem to place to find candidates who support the mission or thecause? Is it a concern among non-profit executives that the data specialist might not “fitwith the non-profit culture” or just a lack of appreciating the value analyst could have forthe organization? The lesson from the campaign is that those “martians” contributed farmore to the organization than any concerns there might be about their commitment to thecause, their salaries or how well they might fit in.Using AnalyticsConsider for a moment the traditional fund development model used by non-profits. It isa process most repeat yearly, especially with an annual campaign. Staff members,gathering a few pertinent examples of the work, create materials to explain what theorganization does and why the mission is important. Then develop and communicate, totheir colleagues, the Board and campaign volunteers, a common message and preparescripts for everyone. Finally, they produce the lists of persons to solicit and send out thematerials or hold an event.
If this sounds like what happens, then there is a need for change! Where in this processhas there been any analysis of data? There is a wealth of information that can be andshould be gathered to improve the fund development ROI. It could include following upon membership inquiries, seeking out demographic information about members,particularly new members (where they live, age, gender, what motivated them to join)what social media they follow and general information about members or trends andchanges to membership.Non-profits could learn a lot about how to raise funds by looking at how the Obamacampaign used “analytics” to discern where the votes were. Analysts could investigatethe reasons member contribute or have stopped contributing; determine whether theorganization’s contributions are similar to national trends or why the last fund event wassuccessful or failed to deliver expected results. The analyst could look at what socialmedia reveals about who visited the website, what pages were viewed, how long theystayed engaged, who is following Twitter or opening the organization’s Facebook page.Additionally, general demographic changes or Google analytics could be included toenrich the data the organization collects.There is a significant amount of data non-profits could use, if, they had a deeperappreciation for data and had staff who knew what to do with it. Effectively usinganalytics, non-profits could find new sources of revenue, improve operations and impactstaff hiring and boards recruitment process.
Mr. Neils’ career includes management and executive positions in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Early in his career, he returned to academia and became interestedin researching organizational goals, performance measures and financial returns on non-profit organizations. Although his published works are often directed toward non-profits,his concepts and analysis are equally applicable to for-profits as well.As his career progressed, Mr. Neils recognized the day-to-day demands on executives,especially managers’, were most often at the tactical decision level, leaving little time toimprove or develop strategic skills. As a result, he developed a keen interest in strategicthinking.His first work was Using Conceptual Models to Improve an Executive’s StrategicThinking. This paper was a theoretical exploration of conceptual models and strategicthinking. Adapting Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Social Needs” Mr. Neils examinedhow internal and external forces act on organizations and executives.Following that, he began to investigate how executives might integrate creativity as away to improve strategic thinking skills. This second article Creativity, StrategicThinking and Statistical Models questions how commonly used statistic models andcreativity might aid an executive’s and staff’s skill to think strategically.Because of the interest generated from these articles, he began to investigate howmanagers and executives learned to think strategically. His research found mostemphasis to be on attributes of strategic thinking people and the need to think strategic,but little on teaching methodology. This prompted, Developing the Skill of StrategicThinking in which he suggests flowcharting as a possible method to teach staff, managersand executives to become strategic thinkers.Mr. Neils’ recently completed, What non-profits can learn from the Obama Campaignargues the need for non-profits to improve their use of data and data analysis and makesspecific recommendations to follow.Mr. Neils belongs to several LinkedIn groups on non-profit management, strategicthinking and performance measures. He can be reached at James.firstname.lastname@example.org andskype at James.neils1 and sponsors a Twitter page called nonprofitsage.