Numbers Count: How to Use Data for More Effective Fundraising

Posted on September 28, 2016 | in Fundraising | by Taj Carson

Lets face it, fundraising can be one of the most dreaded aspects of running a nonprofit. A lot of people feel unprepared and apprehensive about it; asking for money is hard. But there are ways to make it a little easier, and more effective.

Thats where data come in.

Perhaps you think of data and fundraising as natural complements to each other. Perhaps you never considered using data in your fundraising efforts. And perhaps you arent even sure what qualifies as data. Well, Im here to help. In this post Ill go over how you can use data to support and enhance your fundraising efforts for more successful results.

Why Even Use Data?

You might be wondering, Isnt fundraising all about emotional appeal? So why even use data at all? Its true that people are motivated to give by compelling stories. But they also have to believe your story. Data, when used appropriately, is incredibly compelling. It can support your story with information, numbers, and facts, which are especially helpful if your audience is skeptical. And data visualization can further add a creative and emotional component to your fundraising campaigns.

But theres more to using data than just throwing numbers at your audience. You can use it in-house, too, in order to create segmented and targeted fundraising campaigns, to support grant writing, and to grow your membership.

But before I get into all that, lets clear up one thing. What is data? People often think data has to involve giant databases and lots of numbers. Both of those things are powerful (especially if youre talking about audience segmentation), but data can also be viewed more broadly. As Jim Collins said in Good to Great and the Social Sectors:

It doesnt really matter whether you can quantify your results. What matters is that you rigorously assemble evidencequantitative or qualitativeto track your progress. If the evidence is primarily qualitative, think like a trial lawyer assembling the combined body of evidence.

Collins goes on to talk about what to do with quantitative evidence (think like a scientist), but I would argue that in this context you should visualize it and use it to support your qualitative information. Back up those stories with numbers, and theyre instantly more believable.

So data can be quantitative (demographics, number of donors, amounts given, member satisfaction ratings, etc.) or qualitative (personal stories about why people give, narratives about how your organization impacts people or policies, and even before and after images). The important thing is that you collect the right information on a regular basis to fuel your decisions and to show your impact.

This leads then to, how can you use data to support the fundraising and development efforts of your organization? In general you can use it to analyze where your funding comes from, which donors or organizations give more and under what circumstances, and how your social media strategy impacts your fundraising efforts. Social media data is a whole blog post on its own, but here are some other ways to use data for your fundraising efforts:

Grant Seeking

Grants are an integral part of funds development for nonprofits. Data can support your grant seeking efforts in several different ways:

  • You can use data in your proposals to support your case. Demonstrate the need for your services with census data, service data, and personal stories from your clients or community members.
  • Once you have the grant, you can use data to demonstrate to the funder that you used their funds as intended (services provided, people served, campaigns launched, partnerships formed, etc.). Donors and funders like to see proof that their money was well spent. They like to know who was served and how, even information about the quality of the services or the efforts.
  • If appropriate, you can also use data to show the impact of your work. What this looks like varies broadly. In some cases, the funder will have very specific requirements as to what they want you to report out on. In other cases, the requirements might be vague, and this gives you some room to be creative. For example, you could exclusively provide them with numbers about your programs and their successes, but it’s also very helpful to provide qualitative data, or stories, about the impact of your work. You can include images of your program, your community changes, and even videos. And you could use narrative information from individuals, group discussions, or town hall meetings to support your claims that the work that was funded had an impact.

Special Events

Many nonprofits have a big signature event every year or even several special events. Data can help you with this in a few ways:

  • You can use financial data to tell you how much was spent putting on the event compared to how much the event raised.
  • Data can tell you what money was raised from big donors, sponsors, or regular attendees. It can help you target attendees and sponsors year after year and look at trends.
  • You can also use data at the event to boost additional donations. Use images of clients and neighborhoods, combined with data about the need you are hoping to address, or data (perhaps some numbers combined with compelling quotes) about how your clients or communities have been helped by the work you do.


If you work with individual donors, there is a potential gold mine in your donor database. Make sure to keep the database up-to-date, regardless of what software you use, and you can start to see what type of donor gives regularly, what type gives more, and at what time of year they give. Some donors prefer to give monthly, some prefer to attend your big event, and others are great about donating in-kind services. If you can segment your donors using this data, you can target them based on the kind of giving they prefer.

You can also use data in your donor campaigns. People often do respond best to emotional appeals, and you can combine compelling emotional storytelling with solid sources of data about your issue, the need for your organization’s work, and the people and communities that will be impacted. This will reach people who are more inclined to donate based on emotional appeals, as well as those who prefer a more logical approach who are concerned with knowing that their money is well spent. Including data rounds out your appeal, making sure youre reaching as many people as possible.


If memberships are an important part of your fundraising strategy, then recruiting and retaining members, as well as keeping them happy, are important contributors to the health of your organization. There is more to this than just surveys:

  • Data can help you identify which membership recruitment strategies are most effective. If you send out mailings or use social media to recruit members, you can track not only which efforts are most effective at increasing membership, but also what kind of members each strategy is likely to pull in.
  • Analysis can help you to segment your members, as you would with your donors, and use different strategies to reach out to them. Older members, long-time members, male vs. female members there are many ways to think about members and why they are members, especially if you have a lot of them.
  • You can also use data collection to learn more about your members, how they feel about your organization, what they are looking for in a membership, and how you can improve in serving their needs. Here a survey is very helpful, but focus groups and interviews can also give you lots of good information.

So whatever your fundraising strategy is, you could be using data (quantitative AND qualitative) to support your efforts and make them more effective. Fundraising is hard work, so make it as effective and efficient as possible with data on your side.

Want me to write a blog post on a specific topic related to data and fundraising? Let me know!