Friday, March 8, 2013

Is Your Research Shop a Game-Changer?

Almost a full year ago, something amazing happened:  I welcomed a beautiful baby girl into this giant world of ours.  And, a very quick 9 months before that, I found out it was going to happen.  This, of course, was followed by sheer excitement and a brief honeymoon period before realizing we had a lot to do – and buy – before we were ready to bring home our sweet bundle.  Insert onset of panic.

Then, the most amazing thing happened:  We started receiving coupons.  Lots of them.  For things we needed!  Things like baby furniture and travel gear and diapers.  And, it hit me.  They knew.  I hadn’t registered or started wearing maternity clothes or even told my Facebook friends.  Yet, somehow our fine friends at Target were already sending their well wishes (via coupons and ads, of course!).  Shortly after, I read this NYT article, and my suspicions were confirmed. 

Fast-forward more than a year later, and I find myself thinking about these things again from a professional perspective.  If someone I’ve never met at Target knows I’m going to be a new mama and what I will need, why don’t we know that someone is going to be a library donor?  Or, a cancer research donor?  Or, a land conservancy donor?  And, what it will take to get them there and, more importantly, keep them there.

Now, let me back-peddle lest I offend.  The nonprofit world has come a long way with the use of business intelligence techniques to predict donor patterns and streamline the philanthropic process as well as standards of efficiency.  Yet often, when we look to improve – or even start – our analytic programs, we turn to other nonprofits because, well, they do what we do.  But, what if we took a cue from some of these for-profit companies?  They aren’t doing exactly what we’re doing, but they’re doing something very similar, and frankly, they’re doing it really well. 
With this in mind, I’ve been doing a little digging into the mindset of companies where market and behavioral research departments are the norm.  You know, just to see if there are any commonalities.  Perhaps, not shockingly, I’ve found a few key trends. 

1)      They do things differently.  We all know about “failing forward.”  We get it.  We read that book.  But, how many of us actually do it on a daily basis?  Or, weekly, monthly, yearly, for that matter?  In a Research Insider article, Facebook’s market research principal Sheila Normile says, “It’s funny because you often don’t think of research and risk in the same mindset or in the same breath, but we really embrace that idea.”  She goes on to say, “We’re not interested in doing research in the same way that it’s been done for the past 100 years.  If we try something and it doesn’t work, then we’ve learned something and we move on.”  Yet, how many research shops do you know that churn out the same few products for request after request?  How many of you have an arsenal of resources that you continually turn to or a few key reports that you bring to every meeting?  What is that Einstein quote again about doing something over and over and expecting different results…? Quite simply, if we want different results, we must be willing to try new things. 

2)      They value data, like, REALLY value it.  Just yesterday, ProPublica published a slightly scary but illuminating article on the various things the consumer data industry tracks.  (It was summarized  in The Atlantic here.) While most nonprofits aren’t likely going into this much detail, we very often do collect data from our donors.  A lot of it.  It is through this collection that patterns emerge.   Yet, how often does something not get into the database because it just didn’t seem that important at the time?  If data matters (hint: it does.), then protecting its integrity and understanding how to use it (ethically, of course) matters even more.       
3)      They use research to influence strategy.  This sounds like a no-brainer.  By its very nature, research should be used to inform decisions; however, I’ve been in more than a few conversations lately where it seems quite the opposite is happening.  A solicitation has been made and then someone requests research or a wealth screening is conducted as an afterthought instead of a jumping off point.  Facebook’s Sheila Normile says, “If we are doing research to justify a decision that we’ve already made and the research isn’t going to have any impact on that decision, then we are better off having spent our time and resources elsewhere.”  Preach, sister.    
The point of bringing this up is simply to think about the culture of our research shops.  How do we proactively create an environment where research can be a game-changer for our institutions?  Are we appropriately harnessing our skills and resources to add the best value to the collective intelligence of our fundraising shops?  And, most importantly, what innovative techniques are we using to build up the donor experience and, hopefully, encourage transformational gifts for our organizations and the causes we so deeply believe in?  Hmmm.  So, those are the questions I’ve been asking a lot lately.   Well, that and what I should get my daughter for her first birthday.  Any thoughts?  Maybe I’ll look at Target.  I have a coupon.  

Angie Stapleton, President, APRA MidSouth

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