Show Me The Data!

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion”

– W. Edwards Demming

Remember the scene in the movie Jerry McGuire when Tom Cruise’s character, sports agent Jerry McGuire is trying to convince Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, football player Rod Tidwell to keep him as his agent? Rod isn’t convinced with Jerry’s talk and tells Jerry that he will stay if Jerry proves himself. Rod tells Jerry, “show me the money!”

That’s what it’s like with fundraising plans, opinion is just talk. To set the relevant goals and strategies you should be yelling, “show me the data!”

Too often non-profits do their fundraising budgets and plans based on a percentage increase over last year. While last year’s actual revenue is an important data-point, it is not the only data-point, and channel-based planning is short sighted. If you are planning revenue on what comes in through a certain fundraising channel, you aren’t taking the donor into much consideration at all. You are also pushing donors into what you want them to do. That’s not very donor centered.

However, the reality is, you probably can’t get your organization to think holistically about the donor experience right now. You are expected to hit a target number in each channel and goal setting is often rushed in to budgeting time.

So, we are going to break down your data in an easy way that tells both the story of your donors, and of your channel revenue. You will use this data to build a plan using the data you have, and to start to make a shift toward donor-based planning versus channel-based planning.

In the end you’ll have growing revenue because you are working a plan, and that’s what everyone wants so you can better deliver your mission. Once that’s moving along nicely, then you can start to shift the focus (and the accounting department) to a donor-centered model.

Here are some of the arguments you will hear about data driven planning:

“I don’t trust the data in our donor database”

“The database person doesn’t know how to pull these reports”

“These numbers don’t match the accounting”

Don’t get stuck here.

Knowing your data is critical to creating a plan, but you need to do this one thing:


Data, You Complete Me

Here is the data you need to gather:

Financials from last 3 years

What does your accounting department say you made and how are they reporting it?

Strategy and Recommendations

Any strategy or recommendations provided by a consultant, your key staff and your development committee of the board. Gather strategies and recommendations from blogs or books you’ve read, and information you obtained at a conference, etc.…


Fundraising and marketing go hand in hand, but often get their signals crossed or work in silos. If you are not the person planning the marketing strategy – then make sure you get the previous year’s marketing plan and reports from the marketing person. Have a one-on-one meeting to get the strategies and activities they are thinking about doing during the year you are planning for. The message marketing sends out is like air cover for your fundraising. If it is pointing in the wrong direction, you’ll be exposed.

Donor Database

This is where it can get tricky. Below is a link to download a data template. There are four tabs on the excel sheet. Have your database person fill them out to the best of their ability. Make sure the reports pass the sniff test. If they don’t seem right, run them again to make sure that the queries are correct. You have people who can help you with this – good data people on the board or the help desk at the database company you use. Or, outsource to a company that does data analysis for nonprofits.

Donor Segments and Retention

The most important data in creating a donor centric plan is knowing segments and retention.

Every organization uses different timing for when a donor becomes lapsed. Make sure you are being consistent.

Find someone who sees more than a spreadsheet and can translate the numbers into what the story of your fundraising program has been. People who can see the story within the data are rare – find one; they are like an oracle on a mountain top (sometimes they even speak in riddles) and will provide wisdom you can’t get from anywhere else.

Channel Data

For our purpose here, I refer to “channel” as the bucket you (the fundraising team) count the gifts in. Your counting may or may not match the accounting buckets and that gets confusing when the board is watching the financial reports versus the fundraising reports. You define this in whatever way makes sense to you, and that will make the most sense as you put together your plan and your budget. What the template will do for you is tie your channel to your donors and that’s ultimately what we want to start planning strategy and activities around.

Unfortunately, “making your numbers” in a specific channel often means you are funneling donors into a giving behavior that doesn’t allow you to grow your revenue through a solid donor strategy. That’s a whole other discussion .

This post is about gathering your data and using it to set goals and strategies for the ultimate result of having an actionable fundraising plan.

Remember, you are going to have a kick-ass plan when you’re done with the SMARTplan process. It’s a plan you can execute. And, when you and your team work a plan, you will raise more money, and you will work smarter not harder.

Some information you should look at:

  • Number of donors in each segment that upgraded giving from the year before and the resulting revenue
  • Number of donors that gave less than the year before and the resulting lost revenue
  • Number of donors that did not give again and the resulting lost revenue
  • Number of new donors in the year before that gave again this year

Donor Data Templates

The first tab on the template is about the donor pool as a whole. Run reports that provide information on the unique donors and their cumulative gifts.

You can go as deep as you want on your donor data to learn the trends and the story your donors are telling you. It all depends on the level of knowledge your donor database person has in building these queries. There are also outside agencies that will do this for you, and if you have signed the right paperwork to protect donor confidentiality, there’s no reason that not to utilize that service. I believe it’s one of the best investments you can make.

Knowing your data puts you in the driver’s seat and will help you raise more money.

If you are struggling in filling this out, then move on and remember what I said, do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Now, you might be saying, “this donor information is all well and good, but I have to plan and budget what I’m going to raise in each fundraising channel.”

In the workbook, the channel tabs have templates that will give you a great look at your donor giving in the channels and tell a bigger story than just the revenue on your financials.

Each channel tab is a one-year snapshot – make sure you note the year in the top left and if you can, do one for each of the last three years.

Once you have all your data gathered, bring your team together (make sure your oracle is there) and talk it through. Look at the goals and strategies you are setting to decide if they are relevant enough to add to the plan or if changes need to be made. Look at the data as a story, talk it through as a story – SEE what the quantitative and qualitative data is telling you that you should do.

If you have questions about how to fill in the templates or about how see the story your data is telling you, please feel free to email me at and we can set up a quick call.

Here’s the template:

Donor Data Worksheet

You Are Not a Unicorn (and you don’t want to be)

u·ni·corn: /yoona korn/


  1. a mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead.
  2. something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain.

There’s a lot of talk of unicorns in the nonprofit sector lately. Nonprofit professionals often refer to themselves and each other as Unicorns because they are doing something rare.

They are eschewing a higher paycheck; they have chosen to do good over being a corporate minion. They don’t work long extra hours for the money – they do it for a noble cause.

Unicorns are amazing.

  • Unicorns are Gentle (but Ferocious when challenged)
  • Unicorns are Strong and Powerful
  • Unicorns are Rare

Here’s something to consider:

Unicorns are not and were not ever REAL.

Casting yourself as a mythical, magical and rare creature is an insult to your abilities and strength as an individual. You are not a mythical creature. You do not need to rely on magical abilities to be unique and exceptional.

I argue this:

You are a rhinoceros.

Rhinoceroses are ‘perissodactls’, which means ‘odd toed ungulates’.  Horses are also members of this species. The word ‘rhinoceros’ means ‘nose-horn’. (a member of the same species as a horse and has a horn…unicorn?!)

Rhinoceros are amazing.

  • Rhinos are Gentle (but Ferocious when challenged)
  • Rhinos are Strong and Powerful
  • Rhinos are Rare
  • Rhinos are also
    • Tough
    • Stubborn
    • Fearless

And unlike a Unicorn, Rhinoceros are REAL.

You are not a Unicorn (and you don’t want to be). Embrace your Rhino self and charge ahead with changing the world as the strong, powerful, tough, fearless and REAL beast you are.

With affection from a fellow Rhinoceros,


In The Between

Twenty years ago I wrote  an essay on my son Alex’s birthday. He’s 28 today and in honor of his birthday I’m posting that essay. It’s a reminder to be present and breathe in the between.

January 23, 1999


I am sitting here with a latte. I made it first thing this morning, blurry eyed and clutching baby precariously in one arm, I steamed milk for the latte with the other. It sits rapidly cooling as I juggle kid and animal needs all morning.

Then, for a brief heartbeat, a single exhaled breath I find myself in quiet observation of the moment. Everyone is content and a second has slowed enough for me to experience it.

I breathe. Softly, as not to disrupt it.

I feel the need to record this piece of time before it spins away. Even now, in searching for something on which to write, the living snapshot that enthralled me has powered up and raced forward.

Do I continue to describe the moment that crept in between the ordered chaos? It is in the past even as I try to hold it in the present. Isn’t life itself made up of second after second of this stuff? There was nothing special about that moment, only the complete observation of it.

The cat may have been the cause. Stepping gingerly onto my lap, knowing full well that it is a place that moves suddenly from rest to motion, taking the risk. She purred. Heavy and mesmerizing, maybe that was the catalyst.

Or, could it have been the dog? Being dog-like, he sat himself weightily next to the baby. An important job, protective, watchful as the baby happily played with cardboard Lego box.

Should that moment be captured because my oldest son, eight years old today sat at my side building a Lego spaceship? Hundreds of pieces coming together by his hand into a recognizable form. Enthralled in the creation of it.

 Almost grown up. Still a baby.

The music was playing. A woman’s voice. My favorite song. The one we like to belt out at the top of our beautiful off-key voices.

The moment paused.

I breathe. Softly

Happy Birthday Alexander.

Relevant Goals = Relevant Results

What you do is important, and you want the results to mean something.

In nonprofit, in order to do that, you have to set goals; goals around program delivery, money management, people management, and fundraising. Each of these goals is  built upon successes and failures of the past, and often your attention and setting of future goals is only given to reflection of the results from the year or two behind you.

As an organization, how often are you asking whether the goal you are setting is relevant? How do you determine whether it is essential?

In the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, (Crown Publishing Group, 2014) the very first steps in becoming disciplined about acting on only the essentials is to explore and look (evaluate).


transitive verb: to investigate, study, or analyze look into

In setting fundraising goals, exploring comes in the form of looking at the right donor data (sources, segments, retention, lapsed, etc…) and fundraising channel data. It is important to gather both quantitative and qualitative information. It means asking the right questions of the right people; and listening to the answers they, and the data tell you.


transitive verb: to determine the significance, worth, or condition of usually by careful appraisal and study

Evaluation means understanding the story behind the data you’ve gathered; analyzing the real story of what the data tells you, not the story you want to see.

Sure,  fundraising revenue from a long-standing fundraising channel is revenue that is critical to the organization’s budget and ability to deliver mission. But, without asking the tough questions about that goal, the organization often finds themselves on the nonprofit treadmill; vigorously working up a sweat but going nowhere.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” – Steven Covey

  • The Main Thing – prioritize, and then stay focused, and act on the priority
  • The Essentials – do less but do it better
  • The Vital Few (Pareto Principal) – 80% of your results will come from 20% of your work

This makes all the sense in the world. So why is it so hard to do it?

There are a few causes that drag us back on to that nonprofit treadmill; the endless cycle of the trivial many that gets us nowhere.

Confirmation Bias


Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.

As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.

Consider that beloved fundraising event. It’s been going on for decades and the board thinks it’s awesome. Their argument? “People love it and it’s a great way to introduce new people to the organization.”

Year over year the fundraising staff, executive director and board talk about ways to increase the revenue of their beloved event. However, upon deeper exploration and evaluation (looking) at a ten year period, the data shows that participation numbers haven’t increased, revenue has been flat, and new donors to the event don’t give again. Furthermore, it’s  only 7% of the overall fundraising revenue but takes 6 of the 10 staff people months to plan, market and implement the event.

Is this event essential and relevant?

Unfortunately, more often than not, the organization will think it is and only see the data they want (funds in the bank), rather than evidence and data that tells a different story (poor ROI). When asked the tough questions, they rationalize answers to support their beliefs, belays their fears, and the event continues.

I first read about the next reason in the book Essentialism – and I have done some further research to understand why nonprofits hang on so desperately to goals, even when they’ve accepted the data says to do otherwise.

Sunk Cost Bias

From Wikipedia:

Economists and behavioral scientists use a related term, sunk-cost fallacy, to describe the justification of increased investment of money, time, lives, etc. in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment (“sunk cost”) despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, beginning immediately, of continuing the decision outweighs the expected benefit.

Take the Capital Campaign with a fundraising goal that increased over the span of eight years. The money raised had mostly been from the organization’s own reserves and the fundraising had stalled from the very beginning. Then, disaster struck; almost overnight, the project estimate grew almost 30% and the fundraising goal became clearly out of reach. On top of that, the needs the organization had been serving when they started the campaign had changed (in large part because of their work, they had nearly solved the original problem) – and to their credit, they had shifted mission delivery to meet the changing needs. But the project hadn’t changed.

The question of relevance: What is the result they are trying to achieve and what is the relevant goal to achieve it?

Relevant Goal = Relevant Result.

The Endowment Effect

I also read about this concept in the book Essentialism.

Ask yourself this; if you didn’t already have a history of this fundraising channel, and given the cost of time, energy and money to do it– would you start it?

Mr. McKeown describes the endowment effect on the Tim Ferriss podcast. They start talking about it at 14:24, but I strongly recommend listening to the whole thing.

I encourage you to practice essentialism by looking at every opportunity or request that comes to you this week and asking yourself, is this essential?

If not, try saying no and see what happens. Some great ways on how to say no are in Chapter 11 of Essentialism, but you can hear them from Mr. McKeown himself on another episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast here.

Just say no (to the trivial many),


Selfies – it’s a matter of survival

Last week I was the passenger in a car traveling on Highway 2 in Washington State. We were in Tumwater Canyon on a narrow, winding stretch of road between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth. It was icy and the river that runs alongside looked cold and unforgiving.

As we rounded a corner, I saw three middle-aged men standing on the river side pointing across the road and up the steep hill. I looked up, what could it be? There had to be something very interesting for them to stand in such a dangerous spot at the side of the road.

I didn’t see anything but trees and brush and snow.

As we passed them, I saw that one of them had his phone held up; in the hand that I thought had been pointing at something.

They were taking a selfie.

As a human species, we’ve always had a fascination with documenting our experiences with pictures – from cave paintings to the family vacation slide show, to social media posts.

I’ve spent a great deal of the last six months thinking, learning and acting on the impact of storytelling – from how it connects and drives us, as you can read about in this post; to its practical application in fundraising as I shared in my blog post here.

In the past, the sight of three grown men risking injury on the side of the road to take a smiling selfie with the river and snow behind them would have flabbergasted me. “WTF are they thinking?!” I would have said to myself.

This time, it really struck home that the selfie is  another tool we use in our need to tell stories. As a Gen-Xer with millennial and Gen-Z children, I used to get annoyed and shake my head with all the selfies (so many selfies).

However, after more thought, rather than admonish or judge the “young people” (and the middle aged men) who are taking selfies; we need to start understanding that this behavior is driven by a far more ancient and meaningful need – the need to tell our stories.

When we tell out stories, we learn, we teach, we grow and we share so that we belong. It’s survival folks.

So, take those selfies and feel confident in the knowledge that you are doing something you are wired to do to survive. Also, for the sake of survival, please don’t stand on the side of a dangerous stretch of highway when you do it.






Nonprofit Storytelling is Not Just a Buzzword, it’s a Power Tool

Storytelling. It’s the latest buzzword for nonprofits. For good reason.

Storytelling is inherently part of being human; it’s how we relate to one another, how we learn, how we teach and how we influence. Storytelling is so tied into our survival as a species, that without it, we would have gone extinct a long time ago.

It makes sense that nonprofits, doing the work of saving the world would want to tap into the most effective power tool at their disposal – the power of story.

Do you remember being a child and being swept away by a story? Maybe you daydreamed a lot (I did) and the narrative in your head took you to a way more interesting place than that boring math class. It was as if you were actually in the story. That’s how powerful stories are – a good story can transport us to somewhere else and we feel as if we are actually there.

Whether someone is telling you a story, or you’re watching it in a movie or on TV, whether it’s in a daydream; the result is the same. The story creates an emotional response and you learn from it, whether you realize you are learning or not. You modify behavior because of it, whether you realize it or not.

It isn’t just the stories you hear (or daydream) that influence you. The stories you tell also influence you. When you tell a story that recreates an event, or you share something from your imagination; those stories are like throwing spaghetti on a wall to see if it will stick. You test your belief system against the reactions of others, and you keep or change your belief or behavior because of that reaction.

In nonprofits, especially in fundraising – the right kind of story can lead to more support and more engagement in your mission.


Let’s start with brain chemicals; specifically, cortisol, oxytocin and dopamine.

Because nonprofits are dealing with difficult and sometimes horrendous situations, the stories you tell will most certainly trigger cortisol, the stress hormone. It’s the chemical in the brain that yells “DISTRESS!” in all caps.

This is what the Sarah McLachlan video for the ASPCA did (you know which one, don’t make me put a link). Those ads were all about distress. They were so distressful, people have said they just turned off the TV. Not exactly the response you’re looking for as a nonprofit trying to tell your story.

You would think you would want to keep your wonderful supporters free of all cortisol, but that’s not true. Some nonprofits  try to do that, telling only happy, feel-good stories because they believe that distressing their supporters will drive them away. Not true! What happens instead is that their supporters fail to recognize that action is necessary. Cortisol is something you want released in your donor’s brain. Why? Because cortisol demands that they wake up and pay attention.

Cortisol is not enough to motivate support however. While distress can and does often motivate a gift; that kind of motivation is not sustainable unless you plan to attack your donors with distressful information every time you need their support. Trust me, they will start to avoid you (and turn off the TV).

That brings us to the next component of a good fundraising story – empathy. Many fundraising stories fail to elicit empathy, which in the brain is a release of oxytocin. A person who does not feel empathy when you tell your story will not CARE about what you are telling them. This means, your story needs to speak to what they CARE about – not what you think is important.

Below is a video from neuroeconomist Paul Zak that explains:

Once  this brain cocktail of distress and empathy is going, people are more likely to give to a charitable cause. Your job is to provide a means for them to do that, which then causes a little hit in the brain of that fabulous neurotransmitter, dopamine, the feel-good, reward-motivated driver.

Asking for a gift and giving someone a way to make a difference will trigger dopamine when they give (in both your brains!) When you thank them, more dopamine. When you report how their gift made a difference, also dopamine.

All that dopamine when we give. That’s why giving feels so damn good.

In addition, more parts of the brain activate when a person is told a story versus a litany of facts. Without going into all the science, I’ll summarize what researchers in Spain found. 

When you share an experience with someone through a story, their brain synchronizes with it and they feel like they’ve experienced the same thing.

Tell a good story and your audience will actually feel like they are part of the story. 

Because science.

What does all of this mean and why does it matter? Because the more you understand why people respond (or don’t respond) to your stories, the better you will be able to craft a story that meets everyone’s needs.

Below is a simple formula I was taught 20 years ago, and knowing some of the brain science behind why a good story raises more money – this formula is still solid two decades later.

  • There is a need (cortisol) – DISTRESS! make sure your story is an experience demonstrating the need, one that shows the problem you are trying to fix. Tell it as an experience, something the brain can synchronize to – not a bunch of facts and stats.
  • This is why you, the donor, should care (oxytocin) – Empathy. Why should this person care about what you are telling them? Do you know who you are talking to and what problem they want to solve in the world? Focus on why they care, not what you are doing.
  • Please give (provide an easy way to give) because your gift will make a difference to…the problem they want to solve (dopamine) – Feelin’ So Good

Then, after the gift:

  • Thank them for their gift, Tell them they’ve made a difference solving…the problem they want to solve (dopamine). Tell this as an experiential story; you want their brain to synchronize with the story and feel like they were part of it. Remember, the brain can’t distinguish between real and story. Help your donors feel like they were there for the solution. “Thank you for your gift” has zero synchronization potential.

And later:

  • Here’s how your gift helpedthe problem they want to solve (dopamine) You know this by now – but this must be a story that relates to why they cared to give. While you can use stats – please remember, they need to help make the emotional point of the story.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. As with anything of power, you must wield it wisely and go forth to do good with it.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”Erin Morgenstern,

Use the science, and use your gift,


Fundraising Plan template – easy to use!

General George S. Patton said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week”

I don’t like the feels that come with the word “violently” and I know this quote has been reworded many times with nicer words than violently – but I always prefer to reference the original source, so General Patton gets the lead.

Here’s another way to say the same thing, “An imperfect plan executed with purpose today is better than a perfect plan never executed”.

You know how when you go to an online recipe site and there’s all this content before the actual recipe? I’m not going to do that.

I’m going to give you the ingredients and recipe for a SMARTplan first, and then over the next few Friday posts, I’ll provide lots of content on how to build a SMARTplan in more detail.

Here are the ingredients for a quick SMARTplan:

S   Story and Strategy (that’s double the impact for being Specific)

M   Metrics and Milestones (that’s twice as good, wouldn’cha say?)

A    Action and Assigned (Whaaaa?! that’s so much better than Attainable)

R    Roles and Responsibilities (well, now this is just getting too robust)

T    Timed and Timed (Gotcha! there’s a reason for this double timed)

Below is a link to download a simple plan template. If you don’t have a written plan in place, and you need something quickly, this will do. Please note, the R sections are removed – they require a little more explanation.

Here’s the template link – instructions are on the second tab.

Note: Template is not loading into the website right now – please email me at for a copy. I promise – this is not a pitch for business, and I will not send you emails in the future. As soon as we get this website glitch fixed, you’ll be able to download the template from here.

If the SMART ingredients and the plan template make sense to you – go for it!

Purposeful planning and execution, Go!