By the Numbers: The Crucial Role of Research, Data and Analytics in Nonprofit Success

How important are solid research, data and analytics to the nonprofit world? Just ask Eileen Heisman, President and CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, one of the country’s largest grant-making institutions, which currently manages more than $22 billion in charitable assets. Writing recently for Forbes, Heisman said, “Charities need data to tell stories, demonstrate transparency, build trust with stakeholders, and understand the gaps in funding to attract the long-term commitments of social capital.” When it comes to philanthropy, effective data can take many forms and play many roles. What we’re spotlighting here are the numbers – and names – associated with prospect research and analysis.

At The Munshine Group, we have always known that the nonprofits we partner with benefit greatly from the power of data. But we also know it’s not as simple as gathering numbers. The real power of research and analytics is in the thoughtful gathering of information, the insights to know what the findings mean, and the experience to turn all of it into an action plan. From annual funds to campaigns, prospect screening and other data, analytics and research can make all the difference in reaching goals and achieving success.

Our research and analytics team is led by Senior Vice President Shay Laderbush and Analytics and Prospect Research Manager Bill Powers. Together, they have more than three decades of experience working with nonprofits of all sizes and across every sector. In addition, Bill is the President of the Board of Directors of Apra-NY, the New York State Chapter of the international organization Apra (Association of Professional Research for Advancement), which is “the premier organization for professionals who strategically harness information and data to drive fundraising for philanthropic institutions,” and whose motto is Share the Knowledge.

 In that spirit, Shay Laderbush and Bill Powers are sharing some of their knowledge, and recently discussed key aspects of their work with Julia Kathan, Chief Communications Officer of The Munshine Group.

Julia Kathan:  From what each of you has experienced over the years, is there a best time for an organization to undertake a donor prospect research project?
Shay Laderbush:  There is certainly no wrong time for prospect research or a screening. But there are times that can be better than others. Research and data analysis are best when used to specifically prepare for something, whether it’s a donor visit, an event, welcoming new staff, or a campaign.
Bill Powers:  Yes, it can be especially useful when planning and/or preparing for a campaign to ensure that organizations are set up for success, have enough prospects at the right capacity levels, and prospect information is utilized throughout the life of the campaign for solicitations and even last-minute prospecting to achieve campaign goals. Any time an organization wants to increase its fundraising yield, prospect research is a first step.


JK:  Are there misconceptions you run into about the process of prospect research?

BP:  Sometimes organizations think they cannot afford prospect research. The truth is that you cannot afford not to do prospect research. It is a fundamental step for any successful fundraising operation. Prospect research will increase potential ROI, and the investment can help organizations realize significant funding opportunities that may otherwise be missed.

SL:  Other misconceptions are that the process is too difficult, too long or too complicated. But together we work with organizations to understand what the numbers mean and develop actionable insights to take the steps to bring fundraising programs to the next level.

JK:  What are some of the biggest challenges organizations feel they’re facing when they undertake the process?

SL:  At times organizations say they need support to pull the right information from their CRM (Customer Relationship Management) database to prepare for a screening. Once the screening is completed, it’s important they know how to best utilize that information.

BP:  Yes, a challenge with prospect research can be having a plan for implementation. Whether the project involves bringing new information back into a CRM, or additional analysis on known prospects, organizations should have a plan for how to best turn the information into actionable next steps, since the research will help inform and drive solicitation strategies.

JK:  Speaking of CRM and software, when undertaking a screening, does it matter which donor management program an organization has?

BP:  As long as an organization has a system and a process to collect and track data, we can help them with data and prospect analysis. Sometimes this involves cleaning up the data or organizing it in more effective ways, but ultimately, the more an organization knows about its donors and constituents, the better it can make use of the resources it has.

JK:  As you look back on various engagements, what are some main lessons?

SL:  One of the most important things nonprofits can do is gather all the data that they need and understand and track as much as they can in their databases.

JK:  Bill, we mentioned earlier that you are the Board President of Apra-NY, and I know you and Shay have both made presentations to Apra in the past, and have another coming up soon. What’s the importance of being part of this community? 

BP:  Apra is such a wonderful community of individuals who work in prospect development for a variety of types of organizations. I would say two key things are that members tend to be lifelong learners, and have an equal amount of enthusiasm for sharing what they learn with others. I have learned so much from my Apra colleagues over the years, and continue to do so. There is not a day that goes by that I do not gain new knowledge from the Apra community.

JK:  Staying with you, Bill, what provides you with satisfaction in your job with The Munshine Group and for our clients?

BP:  It’s seeing the research and information used in strategic ways to further the missions of nonprofits. Ultimately, it’s seeing organizations do more and achieve more with the resources they gather.

JK:  And Shay, what about you? When do you say “job well done!” and find that satisfaction?

SL:  There are so many rewarding parts of our work, and one is when a client realizes new names they hadn’t thought of or considered before as prospects, and the discoveries help move their mission forward. Another example is when we have repeat clients, who are more than happy with our work, and look to us again to prioritize new donors in their database and build additional portfolios for development staff.

If you’re in the market for prospect research or simply want to learn more about this area, please contact us to make time with our team. We’d be happy to talk with you about the services we offer.