Total Lockdown or Complete Chaos? There is a Middle Ground!

Getting data out of any fundraising CRM system in various forms (reports, queries, mailing lists, exports, dashboards, etc.) is a universal challenge in the nonprofit sector, regardless of the CRM system used. Pulling data accurately requires deep and specialized knowledge of the tools, data, database structure, institutional business rules, and conventions of fundraising (particularly when dealing with giving data).

The common objection to enabling self-service ad-hoc reporting is that end users can’t be trusted to do it correctly – they don’t understand the business rules, they don’t have the time and patience to learn to use self-service tools correctly, etc. And there are potential negative business consequences  – mailings sent to the wrong people, misreported revenue numbers, user frustration, and, ultimately, loss of confidence in the data itself (often unfounded – usually it is the outputs, not the data, that are inaccurate).

But very few nonprofit organizations have the financial resources necessary to employ enough full-time data analysts/business intelligence specialists to meet the reporting and data output needs of their user populations. Usually it’s not even close. As a result, nonprofits have to have something of a self service-oriented model for getting data out of their systems. Either that or force users to endure long wait times for every mailing list and query they need to do their jobs. The latter option  – locking down access to ad-hoc reporting tools – is fairly common, especially in the early period after going live with a new fundraising CRM system.

Even in larger, more robust nonprofit business intelligence environments, some end user data output needs cannot be anticipated in advance – that is to say, there will always be a significant number of ad-hoc (or semi-ad-hoc) data requests that can’t be fulfilled with the simple push of a button. A certain amount of end-user input – that is, self-service –  will always be necessary. The challenge, then, becomes how to enable end users to get the information they need in a timely manner, using a combination of:

  1. Fully pre-built options.
  2. Formal requests to be fulfilled by specialists (a topic which deserves its own discussion), and,
  3. Carefully designed self-service options that allow end users – who are not data experts and who have things other than pulling data to think about – to pull and output data quickly, easily, and with confidence, along with the training necessary for them to pull data confidently and correctly.

The BBCRM Data Output Options paper focuses on #3 – in particular, how to take advantage of the considerable range of output options offered by Blackbaud CRM (BBCRM hereafter) to meet the information output needs of end users without requiring them to become BI specialists. BBCRM offers a robust toolset, and when applied strategically, these tools can help users get the information they need with more confidence and less frustration.

Zuri Group can help. Contact us for more information.

Brandon Ferris, Senior Director



The Data-Driven Advancement Shop

How to make your advancement operation more (strategically) data-driven, and how to do it in a way that supports and respects the people who drive your organization was the focus of my recent breakout session entitled “The Data-Driven Advancement Shop,” which I presented at the 2016 CASE District VIII conference in Calgary. A copy of my presentation is available here. We frequently speak of fundraising as being all about people and relationships, and yet we sometimes don’t afford the people inside our organizations the same level of consideration we do our donors and prospects. As data becomes increasingly important to our efforts we run an even greater risk of overlooking the human element.

This year’s CASE District VIII conference featured a couple of new wrinkles:

  1. An emphasis on alternative breakout session formats in lieu of the tradition lecture-style encounter.
  2. A new way of categorizing breakout sessions – instead of the usual disciplinary tracks such as major giving, annual giving, alumni relations, etc., sessions were divided into Process, People, Performance, and Purpose tracks.

“The Data-Driven Advancement Shop” was slotted into the People track. I had originally expected to fall into the Process track, but after a conversation with one of the program chairs I saw an opportunity to shift the focus of the session toward some rather overlooked human considerations of the race to become more data-driven.

I had two stated objectives for the session:

  1. Through guided small group exercises, participants would leave with specific, actionable ideas for becoming increasingly data-driven in their organizations in ways that would drive strategic business results.
  2. Participants would also leave equipped with a much broader appreciation of the key human factors that are usually neglected as we try become more data-oriented, much to the detriment of our organizations and their people. In order to become more data-driven AND more effective, these factors need to be accounted for.

Take training, for example. Consider, also, job goals, expectations, and performance measurement. As we increasingly expect everyone in fundraising, including front-line gift officers, to capture, record, analyze, and use data more and more effectively to get better and better results, we often fail to consider the fact that these fundraisers only received a minimum amount of training to use the database, and that may have been many years ago, depending on how long ago they were hired. In addition, as we ratchet up what we expect of them in terms of data management, we usually don’t clearly define those new expectations as being officially a part of the job (which is also something we should be thinking about for future new hires), nor do we take something away elsewhere in the workload in order to allow this all to fit in without simply expecting everyone to work longer hours.

On the other side of that same coin, we’d like our data management professionals to do a better job of not merely handling data for data’s sake, but also of providing customer service to fundraisers and uncovering and delivering actionable insights that gift officers can use in their cultivation efforts. But as we do that, have we thought about how this does or doesn’t fit into the high-volume transactional goals against which we measure them? Why would I, as a gift processor, be motivated to drop what I’m doing to handle your one gift (even if it’s six figures), when I have to worry about being dinged on a performance review for failing to maintain a certain average number of gifts processed per week? Similarly, as a records specialist, I may see something in a new constituent record I’ve created that someone in prospect research might find useful, but I have a huge backlog of addresses to update from returned mail. According to my job description and my metrics, it’s more important to get the backlog cleared, even if nearly all of those returned pieces of mail were sent to people who’ve never made a gift. So even though I’m focused on data, it’s not necessarily the right data – which is to say, it’s not the most strategic use of data. To then lament that our data processors don’t see the big picture is completely unfair to them; they’re just doing what they’ve been told they will be held accountable for.

Job descriptions and training are just a few of the aspects of your business that provide opportunities to become more data-driven AND people-centric. By attending to the human factors of data-driven fundraising you can empower your people to turn data into better results.

Brandon Ferris, Senior Director of Strategic Services
Zuri Group

Driven Mad by Over-Segmentation Part 3: A Data-Driven Alternative

In the first two installments (scroll down to see previous posts) of this “trilogy” on segmentation in direct mail fundraising I discussed the basic objectives underlying segmentation, listed some of the challenges and limitations created by typical (often overly complicated) segmentation strategies, and suggested a few very basic principles for effective segmentation.

Now I would like to suggest an alternative, highly data-driven approach: segmentation by giving likelihood. The essence of predictive modeling for fundraising is to identify the constituents in your database with the highest statistical likelihood of giving to your organization, and this information can be used to create segments.

Let’s look again at what I called out in part one as being major objectives of annual giving/direct mail fundraising efforts:

Raise as much money as possible.

  1. Minimize solicitation costs.
  2. Analyze results and refine tactics accordingly.

Now let’s consider how using a custom predictive model to drive segmentation can help achieve improve results in these areas. Data-driven fundraising strategy primarily comes down to targeting efforts, time, resources, people, and dollars toward those prospects who are the most likely to give significantly to your organization.

Within an organization’s overall direct mail fundraising efforts, treating various segments differently can involve more than simply varying the solicitation content. For example, on the basis of likelihood segmentation an organization can reduce the number of mailings per year to low-likelihood constituents, reducing solicitation costs. At the same time the most likely prospects can be targeted more specifically by allocating more resources toward increasing the amount of personal contact they receive in order to increase their giving.

These are just starting points. As an organization becomes increasingly data driven, analytics can be used to inform decision making in other areas such as major giving/prospect management, planned giving, and even data management.

The model itself can be the basis of a powerful test effort, by simply sending a modest-sized general solicitation to equal numbers of constituents across your likelihood segments. You can then analyze giving by segment and will see markedly better results from your high likelihood segment, in terms of response rate, average gift size, and total dollars. A test of this sort can be a great confidence builder to help your organization get more comfortable using analytics to drive decisions such as those described above.

Beyond this simple test, following a likelihood-based segmentation strategy would make it easier to test, analyze, and refine regular solicitation efforts (again, testing variables such as content, channel, timing, etc.) since the segments themselves would be simple and stable. Using likelihood as your fundamental basis, you can certainly also segment further in ways that you plan to align with different messages, as long as doing so doesn’t lead you back into the over-complicated and unstable segments we started with.

Cost-Per-Dollar-Raised is Dead! Long Live the….



It was only because of the various philanthropy news subscriptions I maintain that I became aware of something we ought to be seeing as a game-changing occurrence in the advancement business. In this public letter, the very leaders of the very organizations that created the cost-per-dollar-raised metric that has plagued the nonprofit world and convinced the world that charity effectiveness can be boiled down to this one statistic – countless donors have made decisions to give or not to give on the basis of the presence or absence of the seal of approval from these “watchdogs” – have done an about-face and have disavowed their own creation.

That’s right – GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance have publicly proclaimed that cost per dollar raised is a poor measure of a charity’s performance and have conceded that the obsession they helped create with this metric has hurt nonprofits considerably, particularly by completely hamstringing their ability to invest in growth and capacity, since every dollar not going “directly to programs” was denounced as “overhead.”

While there is certainly much to discuss in the wake of this important change of direction, my initial reaction is “why isn’t everybody talking about this?” It’s a major moment that could open the door to a real sea change in the way everyone thinks about investing in nonprofit growth. The first step is to spread the word. Tell your colleagues about it. Bring it up in your next meeting. Share a link to the letter. Maybe even remove those graphics on your webpages that declare your organization to be accredited by one of the watchdogs.


Brandon Ferris
Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel
Web:               Zuri Group
Twitter:            @datadrivenbf

AASP Summit 2015 Presentation – “Getting Beyond Mere Survival”

Thank you again to everyone who participated in my session entitled “Getting Beyond Mere Survival” at this year’s AASP Summit. You were a fantastic audience. I always appreciate thoughtful questions, and you all came through in that regard. If you would like to download a PDF copy of my presentation slide deck click here: AASP presentation 2015.

The Top 3 Things You Need to Do to Smooth Your CRM System Implementation

#3: Don’t overlook change management. What? Change management? That fluff? Come on, we’re all adults here. We’re all professionals. We don’t need change management. We can count on everyone to support the effort and do what they’re supposed to do. We hate our current system and cannot wait to start using the new one. Wrong. I recently trained a large number of users in preparation for a go live, and I had a number of students who could out-pout my 9-year-old daughter. It sounds funny, but it’s not. I’ve encountered this kind of behavior with every client I’ve ever worked with. Passive-aggressive behavior like that, which probably showed up at other points during the implementation project, can lower everyone’s morale and inhibit buy-in. Getting real buy-in is key to getting back up to full speed quickly and realizing the expected ROI that drove you to make a change in the first place. Such behavior slows and lowers the quality of decision making during the implementation as well. Address it proactively and continuously.

#2: Train Train Train. I can’t emphasize this point enough. I have yet to see an organization anywhere that provides enough training for its staff, and this applies generally – I’m not limiting this to training users on a new system. Typically the majority of users-to-be of the new system get a few training sessions right before going live, which is not nearly enough to have them ready to do their jobs only a week or two later! Hand-in-hand with involving staff strategically throughout the project (which is crucial for adoption) I recommend providing training early on (and again before going live, of course). What I most commonly see are staff who are pulled in sporadically to help with some piece of the project – process testing, validation of converted data, etc. – but who struggle and get frustrated because they don’t know nearly enough about the basics of how to use the new system. Providing the opportunity to get genuinely comfortable with the new tool early on leads to more engagement throughout the implementation process as well as higher confidence and competence when things get real.

#1: Dedicate people resources. The biggest thing that organizations do not anticipate and are not prepared for is the massive workload created by an implementation (and, often, by the ongoing demands the new, more powerful system creates once live; you’ll probably need to staff up permanently as well.). Expecting key staff to balance the demands of their day-to-day jobs with those of the project leads to a great deal of stress, and neither priority is fully served. Get help – dedicated project staff and consultants can not only balance the burden, but the right expertise will help your organization have a much more successful experience.

Be sure to join me and my Zuri Group colleagues at the 2015 AASP conference in Chicago next month. I’ll be speaking on this very topic – successful CRM system implementations. I hope to see you there.

Brandon Ferris
Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel
Web:               Zuri Group
Twitter:            @datadrivenbf

Finding and Keeping Good Fundraisers

This article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy discusses some emerging thinking on the ways and places nonprofit organizations are searching for good front-line fundraisers, who have long been in short supply – a situation which continues to worsen.

The article references findings indicating that poor management and unrealistic expectations play a significant role in the high turnover among fundraisers. I agree with this assessment. My own take on this particular issue starts with the observation that the fundraising industry is absolutely obsessed with metrics and metrics-based individual performance evaluation. So much so, I believe, that the day-to-day experience for fundraisers subject to organizational over-emphasis on metrics is changed dramatically for the worse, and the quality of their work (or anyone’s work in any industry) can suffer because they’re forced to focus on the wrong things.

There’s common saying to the effect of “if you measure it people will pay attention to it.” The exact phrasing doesn’t matter; the essence, which pervades American thinking, is that if you measure things and make damned sure people know they’re being measured and that there’ll be consequences for failing to meet certain standards, they’ll do what you want them to do and their performance will improve (just typing those words out starts to make them seem absurd to me.).

Here’s the flipside, the unintended consequence of that line of thinking (unintended, yes, unforeseeable, not a chance): If you measure it, people will pay attention to it.

Wait, didn’t I say exactly the same thing? No. What I mean, and what most people realize intuitively, experientially, or both, is that if you over-emphasize metrics, people will focus on doing whatever it is they need to do to make their numbers, which very often is not at all the same thing as doing their core work to achieve real business goals. This doesn’t make them bad or immoral. It makes them logical and normal. If you’re told that a set of metrics will be the basis for determining whether you get a raise, get a promotion, or get to keep your job, then those metrics are going to become job #1.

We all know this, and we see and decry it everywhere. “Standardized testing forces teachers to teach to the test!” we lament. And yet we can be quite blind to this same dynamic in our own pursuits. How does this manifest in the development world? Examples include meaningless “contact reports” (“I saw prospect so-and-so in the parking lot at the grocery store.”), prospect poaching, top prospect hoarding, etc.

In any industry it looks like employees telling the boss whatever they think the boss wants to hear and keeping silent about known problems (who wants to give the boss fodder for checking a box on a form that says the employee isn’t “positive” enough?).

Sometimes the ways we measure and evaluate employees even puts them at odds with their teammates. If my performance evaluation is all about the number of records I update and the percentage of correct entries, how likely am I to put aside what I’m doing and focus on helping a major gift officer figure out an importance piece of information? If I am under tremendous pressure to complete a certain number of visits, contact reports, and asks, what are the chances I’m going to take the time to understand data so I can ask for in the right way (instead of blaming advancement services for “getting it wrong.”)?

It also looks like development officer job-hopping. A person can only endure a certain amount of pressure, micromanagement, shaming (group portfolio reviews?), “constructive feedback,” threats, and criticism before they look elsewhere. Of course, they’re likely to find similar conditions elsewhere, but when you reach a point at which you don’t feel safe in your current position, you don’t feel as though you’re being listened to and treated fairly and like a person rather than a set of numbers, and the anxiety is ruining the quality of your life, just about anything else starts to look more attractive.

In the dominant American management paradigm the nature of the manager-subordinate relationship is a hierarchical zero-sum (“I have to give you at least one ‘needs improvement’ so you’ll have something to work on next year,” “I can’t give both of you 5s, someone has to have a 3.”) game based on intimidation and carrot-and-stick methods (almost all stick). Clearly it’s not working, but little attention has been focused on the root issues.

Sadly, carrot-and-stick methods are ingrained in seemingly every aspect of our lives – the way we parent our children, the way we deal with behavior in the classroom, and, unfortunately, the way we manage employees. But the pervasiveness of the approach doesn’t mean it’s effective, or that it’s the only way. Perhaps we’re so far down that road we can’t easily conceive of another paradigm.

Of course, many will object that the problem isn’t the metrics, per se, it’s that they’re the wrong metrics. That’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say for now that after decades of “management by objective,” we’re still trying to find the perfect annual review to motivate, grow, inspire, and retain employees (Hint: it doesn’t exist).

If you’re genuinely interested in diving deeply into the fundamental flaws in the way we manage and evaluate people, you absolutely need not take my word for it. There’s a great deal of research and thinking on this subject from many experts and luminaries, including giants such as W. Edwards Deming. Other significant names include Alfie Kohn, Charles Jacobs, and Samuel Culbert, to name a few. It’s a shame their work is not well known. I hope that fact will start to change.

I am not suggesting at all that there shouldn’t be accountability for fundraisers. Nor am I suggesting that there shouldn’t be quantifiable goals and targets. I’m suggesting we do things differently. There are alternatives, which we explore in a future post.

Brandon Ferris
Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel
Zuri Group

APRA Prospect Development 2015 Session – “So You Want to Be a Consultant?”

I recently spoke at APRA’s Prospect Development 2015 conference in New Orleans in response to a request from APRA to present a session on what it’s like to be a consultant and how to plan and make a move from front-line work into consulting. There was a fairly strong desire on the part of attendees to learn more about this, which did not surprise me. I remember the things I wondered about when I first entertained the notion of becoming a consultant; in particular, the lack of a clear understanding of how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be.

Whenever I speak at conferences I try very hard to provide attendees with useful takeaways they can implement right way at their organizations. Given the requested subject matter, this was a bit harder than usual – presumably, some participants would be more interested in finding their way to a new career, rather than bringing something back to their current one!

But as I thought about the things I have learned about the actual work of consulting – things I didn’t know before I became a consultant, I realized that many of the strategies and tactics I employ every day would have really helped me when I was a front-line fundraiser, advancement services practitioner, and manager. This became the focus of the first third of my session. My PowerPoint presentation has been included here in PDF format (APRA 2015 – BF). I hope you’ll find it useful, and if you’d like to explore any of the ideas further, I’m happy to talk.


Brandon Ferris, Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel

Are You Getting Worthwhile ROI from Your Events?

This article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy is quite good. Although I was not primarily an event fundraiser, staffing cuts eventually left me directly in charge of a major annual gala (whereas I had previously been one level removed, having a direct report who supervised the event.). Even before I assumed direct responsibility I was painfully aware of one of the unpleasant aspects of events: Usually you only hear complaints, and lots of participants have lots of strong opinions which they are very happy to share, often with rather less sensitivity than they might normally bring to a conversation. I found events to be rather like publishing annual reports of donors: The best you could hope to do was not to tick too many people off.

One of the things I like about the author’s suggestion is that this framework can be applied proactively rather than reactively, which, for me, softens the blow of “feedback.” It also serves to (try to) keep participants focused on improvements and solutions, rather than blame.

Beyond this, the article got me to thinking once again about something that never sat well with me – the typical assumptions made about the value and impact of events beyond their direct financial impact. Everyone knows that events are an extremely “expensive” form of fundraising. At my old independent school, the “real” net income from our annual gala auction, after expenses and salaries (that’s right, I always included the cost of staff, which sometimes gets excluded from the calculation) ended up being only about $25,000 per year.

When this fact was pointed out to leaders (Head of School, board members, influential parent volunteers), the typical responses included well-known “axioms” about the importance of friend raising, getting parents involved as volunteers, etc. Another frequent claim, which relates to the point I want to raise here, was that getting people to give via the auction was a “gateway” to additional giving, particularly to the Annual Fund (which is extremely important in the independent school world, since at most schools it fills a planned hole in the annual budget – the so-called “gap” between tuition and the actual cost of educating a student).

Even though the auction itself was not very lucrative, how could anybody argue with getting new donors?

As it turned out, this anecdotal connection between the auction and other forms of giving turned out to be purely anecdotal.

As in 100% anecdotal. As in 0% true.

I had relatively limited data, but when I looked at the three-year period for which I had complete information, I discovered something quite shocking: The top 20 auction donors (a subset of whom were the lead volunteers) had given, over the same three-year period, a grand total of $0 to the Annual Fund.

That’s right, zero.

I am not making any universal claims about the connection or non-connection between event giving and other forms of giving. I should think this case was at least somewhat unusual. What is more, your organization’s event may produce relatively excellent net fundraising results. A cost of 30 cents per dollar raised (assuming it counts salaries) is pretty easy to swallow when your event grosses $1,000,000. However, what I am suggesting is that it would be worth a bit of time and effort to try to analyze the larger ROI of your events, especially if you are not seeing significant direct financial returns.

When I build custom predictive models for clients, I always look closely to see if there is a statistically and practically significant correlation between event attendance and overall giving. Even if you can’t carry your investigation that far, consider simply looking at your large event donors and their event giving vs. direct (non-event) giving, and see where the information leads you. What would you do if you found that your events provided minimal direct and indirect ROI?

Brandon Ferris
Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel
Zuri Group

Stop Tracking Events in Spreadsheets!

“Shadow databases” are a very common problem in the advancement industry. Whether data is stored in home-built MS Access databases, third-party CRM systems, or just Excel files, having some of your institution’s data stored anywhere other than the database of record poses a number of obvious challenges:

  1. Limited access to useful information
  2. Biographical data not being updated everywhere
  3. Incomplete picture of constituents.

It’s item #3 I’d like to address in particular, given my focus on data-driven fundraising. In order to use data most effectively to drive strategic advancement outcomes, the data must be accurate – that goes without saying! When data is spread out in multiple locations, it’s just about impossible to keep it up to date everywhere, and this compromises the overall quality.

When key data are not stored in the system of record, which reduces the “completeness of the picture,” your ability to do data-driven fundraising can be even further compromised. Consider one of the most rampant cases of “shadow data:” Events. A tremendous number of institutions fail to track some (or, sometimes, any whatsoever!) of their event data in the CRM system of record. There are various reasons. Some CRM systems offer limited capability, but in quite a few cases, it’s due to lack of training and/or a lack of commitment to ensuring that event data are properly captured. It takes some effort to get it all into the database, and instead it often languishes in spreadsheets.

From a data-driven fundraising perspective, event data are extremely useful. Event attendance almost always shows a strong statistical correlation with giving, so if you don’t have accurate, accessible event information, you cannot include that data in any efforts to predict giving.

So I say, stop tracking your events in spreadsheets, if you have the necessary tools to track them in your fundraising system. Get professional assistance, if necessary, to help you figure out how best to do it, to train your staff, and to develop consistent policies and business rules for managing event data.

Brandon Ferris, Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel
Zuri Group