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3 Steps to Build a Data-Driven Organizational Culture

“Are you sure it was a success?” I couldn’t help but ask a second time.

“I’m obviously not 100% sure, but it feels right and it seems to be paying off.”

The consultant I was on the phone with was leaving me a bit queasy.

“Isn’t there a way we can measure if the gala was more effective than the donor survey we sent out? I know they aren’t apples to apples, but we must have some data,” I pleaded.

“Zach, I’m telling you, the gala was a huge success, and sure the survey did great too, but the gala brought in the big bucks!”

Another day, another anecdotal “it worked” phone call. It pains me to hear these one-off stories from consultants, nonprofit professionals, and corporate executives who insist “It’s working, it’s working. Just don’t worry about it.”

When I hear those words I worry.

Why? Because anecdotes and gut feelings can only take you so far. Sustainable, healthy, and growing organizations rely on more than luck and intuition to make important, organization-wide decisions. More frequently than not, they turn to data to inform the decision making process.

This is not without challenges though. Implementing data-driven decision making is infinitely more difficult than simply talking or writing about the subject. Understanding what data to capture, how you should be measuring it, and what benefit should be derived from it are all challenges you need to overcome. Each daunting in its own unique way, which I’ve written extensively about:

There is however one lesser recognized hurdle you need to clear on your data-driven decision making journey: culture. The biggest barrier to entry that I have discovered over the past 4 years isn’t being unsure what to measure, or having access to information. No, it is a lack of organizational culture that supports this new way of thinking.

Data-driven culture

Over the past decade a subtle shift has occurred. Organizations of all types and sizes have altered their decision making process. Gone are the days of hunches and guesses, and in their place we’ve welcomed data-informed decisions.

In recent years we’ve seen a bifurcation of leadership styles. On one side there are practitioners who rely heavily on their gut. For decades they’ve managed to get lucky. On the other, we have evidence-based leaders. They rely heavily on research, best practices, and the scientific method.

While neither extreme may be ideal, a compromise between the two schools — trusting your instinct but knowing your data to back it up — usually nets the best results. Regardless, this ongoing shift begs the question, “How do I help transition and shape my organization’s culture?” Whether you are at an organization that is hell-bent on the scientific method or relies much too heavily on the loudest voice in the room, the same desire arises — how do I positively shape our changing culture?

Here are three steps you can take today at your organization (nonprofit or for-profit) to begin to shift your culture towards effectively leveraging data.

Step 1 — Have a clear vision and strategy

Strategy is defined in the dictionary as “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” Building a data-driven culture at your organization depends on it.

Without strategy (and vision, which we’ll come back to in a moment) you cannot have data-driven decision making. You can have data of course, but in order to make decisions with that data, you need a strategy.

Strategy pairs nicely with vision. Vision is defined as, “an organization’s road map, indicating both what the organization wants to become and guiding transformative initiatives by setting a defined direction for the organization’s growth.”

Vision is your guiding light, strategy is your manual on how to get there. Any form of cultural change requires a leader to present both. The more well thought out, concise, and compelling your strategy is, the more likely a team will buy-in and unite around it. Even the most pragmatic members of your team can get onboard with a new strategy, especially when you involve them in the process.

Now that we know we must have a vision and a strategy, what then does a data-driven strategy look like? I’ve written extensively in the past about what this looks like, and I’d highly recommend reading (or rereading) this article:

Step 2 — Get buy-in

Once you have a clear vision and strategy in place, you need to put your sales hat on. You’re about to go “door-to-door” (or office-to-office) selling your plan.

There is a fantastic Harvard Business Review article titled, Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate. Replace “company” with “nonprofit” and we have a compelling case study on the importance of selling your vision to your colleagues. A strategy and plan to shift your organization towards being more data-driven will be all for naught if others do not buy-in. Read the Harvard Business Review article and implement its suggestions.

Data-driven culture is best executed when everyone is on board — from the c-suite to an entry-level position. If your colleagues were to receive a mandate to “collect more data,” you may fool yourself into thinking you have a data-driven culture, when in actuality you have a handful of staff frustrated and upset that they have to add more numbers to an excel spreadsheet.

There’s a difference, and that difference requires selling. Sell. Sell. Sell.

More on the concept of “selling” can be found in Daniel Pink’s book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. I highly recommend it.

Step 3 — Determine which metrics align with your strategy and then measure them

It is only once you have thought of a strategic plan and received buy-in from your team that you can effectively begin to collect and review data.

A data-driven culture is one that supports scrutiny, embraces transparency, and questions everything. A data-driven organization captures information that aligns with its strategy, measures key performance indicators, and relies on information that is relevant and important (not vanity metrics).

How then can you go about determining what information you need in order to gauge the effectiveness of your strategic plan? Unfortunately I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer — it will change from organization to organization and situation to situation.

However, there are some key metrics that most all organizations measure because they align with most organizations overarching strategic goals (grow, sustain themselves, etc.). If you haven’t read it yet, I’d highly recommend reviewing chapter 2 of the Metrics That Matter eBook.

Applying this at your shop

The concepts I have presented today are not trivial, they’re complex. Culture is tricky. You know it exists — you can see it and feel it — yet as invisible as it is, it is quite a force to try to change. Don’t get anxious or overwhelmed by this. Simply identify culture change as a critical action item for shifting your organization towards data-driven decision making.

You could get bogged down for hours, days, or even weeks in the numbers… “Should I calculate this retention rate or that retention rate? What’s more important?”


First assess your organization’s culture. Does it currently support data-driven fundraising best practices? If not, use some of the thoughts from this article to frame your next steps.

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