What if data for nonprofits could make a difference? A chat with Chris Houghton

What if data for nonprofits could make a difference
What if data for nonprofits could make a difference


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Can data for nonprofits make a change? Does data have the power to influence social good? What does it mean to be a ‘digital data-driven’ organisation? Is the work of nonprofits held back by outdated ways of using data? How can charities use data to make a bigger difference?

These are questions, Chris Houghton, founder of Beacon, a modern database for nonprofits, set out to solve. I spoke to Chris about the power of data for social good and his reasons for developing much needed new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software for the sector.

Chris shares with us his expert insights into how data underpins all of the work charities do, and how to get the basics right when it comes to data for nonprofits.

The data challenges nonprofits face and how to solve them

Chris founded Beacon to solve data problems nonprofits face, with an aim of simplifying complicated software, and a mission to change the world with data. “Data for social good” are buzzwords for a reason, “it’s very tangible,” Chris tells me.

Get the data basics right

Getting the data basics right for the nonprofit sector is challenging. The average charity may be taking donations from around eight different avenues and platforms, so things get very complicated very quickly. Charities also have different needs, some run support groups, some events, and each organisation has its individual way of working and recording this information.

Add in GDPR, transparency trends, API integration, automation, significant cybersecurity risks, and a simple problem becomes a challenging one to solve. Chris explains that answering some of the simplest questions can be one of the hardest things to do, especially in the charity sector.  

Reach supporters in a targeted way

He noticed that nonprofits need simple data-driven solutions, but due to the complexities of data gathering, storing and exporting, it’s challenging for NGOs to get simple answers to their questions. Questions such as, How much did we make last year?’, ‘Who are our most valuable donors’, ‘Who are the people that used to donate to us and now don’t’, may sound simple, but without accurate and easily accessible data, it’s difficult to get the answers.

Chris explains, “Being able to answer these questions with data with an easy to use system can have a massive difference. Purely on the fundraising side alone, it means that charities can reach out to supporters in a targeted way, and raise more income than they were able to before.”

With a vision of flexibility and simplification, he set out to solve these problems by developing Beacon’s CRM which enables nonprofits, no matter their size, to get the data basics right.

Data for nonprofits: the benefits of CRM – Customer Relationship Management

Technology has advanced since many CRMs designed to manage data for nonprofits were built. Charities now require a CRM that is designed specifically for the sector and understands its specific needs, is customisable, intuitive, modern and easy to use, and doesn’t require a database admin or a lot of training. For anyone who works for an NGO, this may sound like a pipe dream, but thanks to new software like Beacon, it’s now easier for nonprofits to work with data.

Storing data in one place

Chris says it’s all about getting the basics right first and getting data sets streamlined and accurate. “The crux of the effective use of data all comes down to storing all of it in one place, having easy to get data in the right format, ensuring it’s not duplicated, and making it easy to get data security into one system,” says Chris.

“There’s a lot of noise on how Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain will change the world of fundraising” continues Chris. “It’s going to have an impact, but the most important thing to focus on is to get the data basics right.”

data for nonprofits dashboard
How to get the data basics right with Beacon’s simple dashboard

What about AI?

It’s imperative for nonprofits to be able to utilise data easily and effectively, and right now a lot of small charities do not have the software to be able to do it or are using outdated CRM software inefficiently. “Once the data is right you can start laying on technology like AI. There’s no point of beginning to use technology like AI if you haven’t got a good data set. Everything works off the data set. ”

Beacon: using big data to bring NGOs charities and supporters closer together

“Consumers expect more than what they used to, across all sectors. Standards have gone up, and nonprofits now need to raise the bar to keep bringing in supporters and donations.” Chris explained to me how the Internet raised everyone’s standards and the bar of quality.

Data improves the quality of your communications

A crucial part of this, continues Chris, are nonprofits communicating better. People don’t like receiving mass generic communications; a higher level of engagement is now required. NGOs are starting to think about how they can talk intelligently to supporters via all communication avenues. “It’s essential to talk to people in all communications in a personable humanised way.” All of this starts with data; when the data is all in one place you can start to do things such as targeting communications in smart ways.

Data helps “personalisation”

In the nonprofit sector, there’s a misconception about “personalisation”, it’s not just tracking marketing metrics like click-through rates, response rates, and open rates. “To call that personalisation is not accurate, as we don’t know anything about that person except that they opened an email or responded to a communication. It’s behavioural targeting at best. There’s nothing personal about it.”

Personalisation involves utilising the data you have about a specific supporter. For example, sending them a birthday card or sharing stories about beneficiaries that are the same age as the supporter, on the channel they prefer. “That’s personalisation”, says Chris, “Communications that help supporters engage in a new way, a relatable way, is important. It comes down to understanding how different supporters want to engage with you and communicating to them in the way they prefer.”

What it means to be a digital data-driven organisation

“‘Going digital’ is a broad statement; it’s better to think about it as ‘running an online organisation’. Traditional fundraising still has its place, especially when marketing to an older demographic. However, Chris advises, “it’s worth remembering that your donors will change. It’s critical to appeal to younger donors as well, and they don’t want direct mail, they want to be reached on social media and receive emails. That requires a big shift in the overall thinking.”

“Doing” digital is not enough

Chris explains that ‘digital’ is interesting as it’s a whole host of new channels and new ways of thinking about how nonprofits engage. “The worst thing an organisation can do is to think about it on the side of something you should do. You shouldn’t ‘do digital’, you should make your organisation digital.”

Digital as a “lifestyle” choice

Millennials and Gen Z’s do not want direct mail, and because of the passage of time and advantages in technology, people are getting more of a preference for digital. The reason direct mail was successful is that it’s a very trackable marketing approach. Digital is the same, but even more trackable, you can track people over multiple devices, different browsers, and you can then learn from that.

“Digital is something that organisations have to embrace as a “lifestyle choice”. It’s about building the lifestyle habit of constantly trying out different approaches, to see what works and what doesn’t. In tech we call it the ‘build, measure, learn’ strategy.” he says.

To sum it up

When it comes to data, the key is to get the basics right. When systems are in place, nonprofits can utilise their data in the most effective way to communicate to supporters in ways that they want to be communicated to, which will ultimately increase support and income.

To be able to utilise digitised technological advances, nonprofits need to ensure their data systems are effective. There’s a huge opportunity for NGOs to utilise data in ways that B2C and B2B companies do, and market to all supporters in a modern personalised way, and the first step is always the data.

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