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The Big Shift towards Fundraising Analytics: a conversation with Joshua Birkholz

Tue, September 16, 2014 8:48 PM | Anonymous

Written by Rodney Young



Joshua Birkholz is a national leader in fundraising data consulting and analytics.  He is a principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner and author of the widely acclaimed book, “Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy.”  Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Joshua about some of the material from his book.  Joshua will be one of our main session speakers at our 2014 Data Analytics Fall Conference on October 3rd, 2014!  Read our interview to get a sneak peek at what he’ll be sharing with us!

Rodney: Your book, Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy, has made waves in the nonprofit fundraising world!  What has been some of the feedback, especially from higher education institutions, on the book and its impact on higher education fundraising strategy overall?

Joshua: The reception has been surprising positive for what seemed to be a very niche topic in 2008.  Today, data science is everywhere including our beloved world of nonprofit fundraising.  The book was a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  I was fortunate to have had several years conducting analytics for fundraising before it became a “thing.”  Certainly, there are many people who know so much more than I do about statistics.  But, I had an odd balance of statistics and fundraising.  This seemed to strike a chord that resonated in the community.  I’ve had professors use the text in their classroom, chief development officers buy copies for all of their employees, and countless contacts from researchers saying my little book helped advance their career.  It is a great honor.

Rodney: In the book, you mentioned how donors are approaching philanthropy differently and more thoughtfully, and that it makes the case for shifting to using data to guide fundraising strategy.  Tell me about how and when you noticed this shift in organizations?

Joshua: In this generation, we are seeing the transition from the establishment of fundraising programs to the transition into truly professional organizations.  Of course we should say fundraising is really just relationships.  How can you argue with that?  The challenge is scaling relationship building for multi-billion dollar campaigns.  In reality, we need to build integrated organizations actively producing and prioritizing relationship building.  Analytics describes both a toolkit and a mindset for building a big fundraising machine. 

In the prospecting world, this is most apparent in the shift from primarily liaison-based research as a service programs to distributed prospect development structures.  Now some people filter the lists, manage macro level data extraction and acquisition, and produce pools while others vet these pools and feed smart-allocation systems of assignments.  Some people manage the inventory of portfolios and study metrics from a production (rather than benchmarking) perspective and others have moved beyond collecting facts to analyzing the economics of our industry and the industries of prospects.  They are able to forecast asset growth and liquidity.

There really is no specific when.  All of these changes are simply natural evolution tied to the accessibility of new technologies.  We embrace data because we can and it works.

Rodney: Why do you feel some organizations resist the idea of data-driven fundraising strategy?  What are things you've seen that help to convince them of the value of it?

Joshua: Self-preservation by the path of least resistance.  Many people simply want to survive.  Others want to be amazing.  As Peter Drucker said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”  Resistance to something that so universally disrupted all major industries for the better can only be explained by fear.  In these cases, I focus on:

  • 1.       We can really do this!  It is within our reach! And…
  • 2.       We will be extraordinary!  

I deliver these messages in an inside-outside approach.  Here are a few ideas:

  • 1.       Do a small project on your own time on your own dime.  It’s cheaper than looking for a new job.  And your mission is worth your generosity.
  • 2.       Find internal champions.  There is strength in numbers.
  • 3.       Find external examples.  Ignore the “we are nothing like x” or “Y has so many more donors, etc.”  Just keep flooding with examples.  Size doesn’t matter nearly as much as everyone says it does.  What does matter is people who care enough about their organizations to make them better.  You can be that person.

Rodney: We're looking forward to you speaking at the APRA-IL Data Analytics Fall Conference!  What are just a few things we can look forward to learning in your session?

Joshua: You will leave excited about analytics.  More importantly, you will see that all of this great data science is perfect for our industry and our industry is worth it.

Rodney: Thanks so much Joshua - we look forward to seeing you here in Chicago on October 3rd, 2014 at the conference! 


Follow Joshua’s blog at www.joshbirkholz.com and be sure to see him at the upcoming APRA-IL 2014 Data Analytics Conference on October 3rd, 2014!  Register TODAY at www.apraillinois.org!

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