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

Author: Aimee Sheridan

Aimee has spent the last 20 years in non-profit leadership roles; raising revenue, awareness and building community partnerships to support services that care for those in need. Aimee’s signature strength has been in working with stakeholders to create comprehensive, integrated fundraising and marketing plans. By using data driven strategies focusing and on execution toward the goals, she has been able to help organizations increase their revenue because they are working on the right activities as part of the plan.

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