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  • Writer's pictureErin Lynch Moran

Making the Case for Visual Analytics

Fundraising has been a profession a lot longer than fundraising analytics has been a thing. When I began my career more than 20 years ago, our constituent database was on a mainframe, prospect research used CD-ROMs, and we had to request fundraising reports weeks in advance. We needed a good reason for asking, too, because there were about 20 other employees in line waiting for reports. Eventually, information would be hand delivered to us, spooled out of a dot matrix printer in an accordion-shaped stack of paper. Answering the most fundamental questions—How much have we raised this year? Who are our top prospects? Who supports our athletics program?—took considerable time and effort, and the work was bottlenecked through a single person.

If you’re newer to fundraising than I am, it may be hard to imagine working that way. And yet, you work with people who began their careers in this context. Your office may even be led by one. Such individuals achieved a great deal of success while “feeling their way in the dark” from an information standpoint. They know firsthand that it is possible—not easy, but possible—to raise money with little more than a Rolodex.

Convincing a skeptic that visual analytics will transform your organization’s fundraising capacity can be a challenge. You’re often making the case to someone who achieved extraordinary things before it was possible to harness data the way we can now. They understand that data is important, but they succeeded before fundraising data science, so an investment in analytics feels more “optional” to them than it does to you. And that’s true even in the context of a pandemic, when the value of easy access to reliable data has never been more evident.

If this is a familiar struggle, here are some ideas that may help you bridge the gap:

Give them a hands-on experience.

It’s hard to convey in words the impact that visual analytics will have on your fundraising program. So, instead of using words, use a visual example. Here’s a simple one:

Can you glance at these numbers and spot the outlier?

Now, how long does it take you to spot the outlier in a visualization of the same data set?

It's much easier to find the outlier in the visualization than in the table, isn’t it? Leaders who use visual reporting can respond to trends much more quickly than those who don’t. You can’t respond to a trend until you know it exists.

Today’s leading BI tool,Tableau Software, lets you create dashboards that you can interact with to gain further insights. (Full disclosure, Solas is a Tableau Alliance Partner.) If your leaders are unfamiliar with interactive dashboards, they may not appreciate how much more information they contain compared to a traditional fundraising report. Showing them such a tool and allowing them to explore it themselves has a much bigger impact than simply describing it to them.

If you don’t have something to show them, give us a call. We’d be happy to share dashboards from our library that demonstrate the extraordinary power of visual analytics for fundraising. 

Arm them with data about data.

Your organization gathers far more data on its constituents than it did 20 years ago. How do I know this? Because everyone’s data has expanded. According to International Data Corporation, in December 2018, all the world’s data added up to 33 zettabytes. That’s 33 trillion gigabytes. And while that’s an extraordinary amount of data, IDC estimates that that the world will have five times that amount, approximately 175 zettabytes of data, in five years. That’s the rate at which our collective data is expanding.

If you work with data for a living, you probably sense this growth intuitively. You can now answer questions about your constituents’ interests, preferences, activities, and behaviors that no one in your organization could answer twenty years ago---or probably even ten. This expansion poses enormous logistical challenges if we lack the technological infrastructure to analyze that information. Our data has become like the galaxy: it’s too large to see without tools. Our information must be optimized, aggregated, and distilled in order to inform decision making.Without the right tools, we are squandering what is far and away the most valuable non-human resource we have, making fundraising far more challenging than it needs to be.

Share success stories.

Human beings learn best through stories. Fundraisers know this well—telling stories is an integral part of their job. Stories that illustrate how visual analytics led to success are the clearest and most memorable way to convey your message. The great news is that there is no shortage of such stories. Many institutions are already running advanced analytics programs and will be happy to talk about their successes.

When you tell the story, be sure it has a beginning, middle, and an end. Give the details. Don’t just say that some institutions double their major gift fundraising activity when they start using metrics dashboards. General facts aren’t nearly as memorable as stories. If you don’t have any stories of your own and need some inspiration, give us a call. We’ll tell you the true story about how a dashboard we developed directly led to the largest gift an institution raised in its history.

It can be frustrating not to have the resources you need to be successful. And, yes, if your organization adopts interactive analytics tools, it will save you many hours of time and improve the quality of your services. But those arguments are from your vantage point. To make a persuasive case, you must begin by understanding things from the listener’s perspective. If you’re talking to someone unfamiliar with analytics, you’re asking them to take a leap of the imagination with you without giving them a vivid picture of what those tools can accomplish.

There’s a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford:

 “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

To reach common ground, you must first get your leaders to imagine the car.


Erin Moran is a partner at The Solas Group, a leading fundraising analytics and advancement services consulting firm.

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