Collecting Thick Data to Understand Your Donors

If you are like most development professionals, you spend considerable time, talent and financial resources making sure that you have accurate and reliable data at your disposal. What are we using all this data for? Certainly we should use it for more than setting ask amounts, tracking participation and printing mailing labels.

Last year, I was asked to compile a list of ten trends in fundraising. My research led me to the notion of thick data from Tricia Wang, co-founder of Sudden Compass, a data analysis firm. What is “thick data?” It is the information from humans that captures the full context of their emotions and stories. At their core, development and education are about serving people, so it wouldn’t be prudent for us to eliminate the human element from our decision-making and analysis.

Thick data goes hand-in-hand with hyper-personalization. One obvious example is Netflix: when you log in, you will see suggestions of what to watch next based on your viewing history. Consumers have come to expect hyper-personalization on shopping and social-media sites. 

Can you use that type of personalization in fundraising? Yes! By leveraging mail merges, push pages and other tools, you can appeal on a very personal level to your constituents. The way to accomplish this in fundraising is by culling thick data. Look for patterns or gaps in the data. Get to know your donors and the reasons that they support your community and why they participate at a particular giving level.

Know Your Potential Donors
Find the sources of thick data in your work—then bring your thick data and big data experts together to strategize. 

This is especially important for constituent groups such as grandparents and alumni. Intuitively, grandparents want what is best for their grandchildren, but often they make significant gifts to Jewish schools because they are committed to the future of the Jewish people. Similarly, if you look at what resonates with alumni donors, they won’t necessarily be motivated to donate because of new technology that the school is adapting. They are likely compelled to give for nostalgic reasons and so that current students can experience what they did.

If you run your annual campaign with parent volunteers, make sure that they understand that a big part of their assignment is to be astute listeners and communicate with you on a regular basis. The information that they report back after making their calls will inform how you plan your spring fundraising. Is the information you are getting from your volunteers reflected in your data? What is the school excelling at that you can promote? Where are you falling short? This is where to begin looking for patterns in data. 

Data as Reality Check
Grade 10 students at Milken participate in a semester-long program in Israel. The cost of the program is significant, and there has been a long held belief that parents of tenth graders don’t contribute to the annual fund, or if they do, they make a substantially smaller donation. When we looked at the data and started speaking with donors, we found we were simply incorrect. The majority of parents in this group had planned for the added expense of the trip, and in some cases they even increased their donation to show their appreciation for their child’s unparalleled experience.

Thinking Beyond Capacity
Capacity is one thing that all of our leadership donors have in common, but it's just a starting point on a strategic journey. If you dig deeper, can you learn why donors in this group are inclined to give at this level. This year, during the pandemic, many of our leadership donors were motivated to move up to this level because of the extraordinary tuition-assistance needs of our community. Understanding the reason for their generosity will likely help you develop a strategic approach for other prospective donors. 

Learn to Tell a More Compelling Story With Your Data
Before learning about thick data, data never held my attention. I acknowledged that accurate data was the single most valuable tool for an organization. It told one of two stories: the campaign succeeded or failed to meet goals. It was also a burden, taking an immense amount of time and resources. Spending more time on data didn’t necessarily lead to better decisions. 

Now I see that data can be used to tell a much more nuanced, interesting and important story about our school. I try to look at data creatively. Data alone isn’t an answer; integrating data with context and emotions to enhance our stories can help inform and guide our work. 

For many of us, our annual campaigns have wrapped up, and there is a bit of flexibility in our schedules. Make it a priority to reach out to donors of a particular giving level, and find out what the commonalities are and their reasons for giving. They may surprise you, and they will certainly help you achieve your strategic objectives.

Hilary Hellman is the Director of Development at Milken Community School in Los Angeles.