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Being Data-Driven in a Heart-Centric Sector

Many of us stumbled into the nonprofit sector because we have big hearts. We hurt when the world hurts. We see human potential and want to serve as catalysts for change.

But, all too often, nonprofits fail because they make decisions primarily with their hearts or their guts.

How can we make data-driven decisions that maximize our organization’s impact and serve our communities well?

As we begin a new year, it’s a great time for a retrospective and future planning. Pose key questions to ensure that your organization is collecting data wisely.


  • Does your board participate in an annual self-evaluation process? Use the data to refine governance policies and procedures.

  • Does your organization regularly participate in an intentional planning process? Most organizations embrace “strategic planning” every 3-5 years; we recommend a full process every three years, and a less-intensive annual review of the strategic direction and framework.


  • Does your organization regularly receive feedback from its constituents? This can take the form of pre/post-tests, surveys, focus groups, or participation in advisory councils. Listening and implementing change based on feedback is an important component of being data-driven.

  • Have you conducted an environmental scan to understand the factors impacting your work? Consider using a tool like PESTLE or SWOT to think strategically and holistically.


  • Do you know your key performance indicators (KPIs) including cost per dollar raised, donor retention rate, average gift size, average major gift size? Choose KPIs that align with sector best practices, but also customize to track your organization’s current objectives.

  • Have you analyzed your donor attrition? Consider the unrealized gift amounts associated with your lapsed donors (LYBUNT and SYBUNT meaning “Last/Some Year But Unfortunately Not This”). Identify ways to personally reach out and re-engage previous supporters.

Collecting data is just the start; utilizing it is even more important. When data is used for connection, and applied within context, it creates change. Don't forget to explore questions that help your organization apply the data it has collected.


  • Are you using data to inform staffing decisions, IT investments, marketing strategies, partnerships, community development, and other aspects of organizational operations? Be strategic in your internal investments and growth plan: focus on strengthening connections with your stakeholders and community.

  • Have you considered the findings of formal asset-based community assessments? Use external assessments of the community’s position to refine your programs, approach, and target population.


  • How do you make sense of the internal and external information your organization has collected? Remembering the context of the information is imperative, especially over the last few years. COVID has disrupted some trends and confirmed others. Take a more comprehensive approach to your data analysis; consider looking at the last five years of information to create a full picture of the organization’s trajectory and new opportunities.

  • How do your organization’s stats compare with the industry benchmarks gathered by the Fundraising Effectiveness Project? By reviewing benchmark data, you’ll have context to make sense of your organization’s outcomes. Remember to consider other factors like subsector, geography, organization size, etc.

Data-driven decision-making leads to strong, healthy nonprofits that are advancing the greater good.

What data does your organization need to gather and analyze in order to thrive? How are you using connection and context to move your organization forward in 2022?

Photo credit: Data heart image by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash.


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