How to Use Data to Build Stronger Relationships

Before we discuss how to use data to build stronger relationships for your nonprofit, let’s start with a philosophical question: What is a relationship?

This feels like a simple question but take a few minutes on your own (no cheating—don’t peek ahead) to try and define what it means.

Okay, welcome back.

Did you struggle a bit, as I did? It’s surprisingly easy to get stuck in a circular definition, using the word to define itself. And if you did cheat a bit by leveraging a quick online search, you might have noticed online content focuses on relationship within the context of two people who are dating, married, or related in some way.

There’s a good bit of research focused on the intersection between two people; research on the relationship between a person and an organization is a bit sparse.

However, Danny McCall beautifully articulates the challenge of defining this dyad in his whitepaper, The Durable Relationship:

Although “relationship” is a commonly used word, having an actionable comprehension of a relationship’s dimensions and forces isn’t a trivial matter. This is because relationships are largely intangible, complex, nebulous and multifaceted, which makes them hard for our minds to see, grasp, take apart or design. Further, business relationships consist of a myriad of bilateral elements ranging from the warm, personal psychology to the cold, clinical economics. Beyond this, substantive relationships normally have layers of paradox—harmony and tension; shared commonalities and distinct differences; dependencies and independencies; control and autonomy; and shared and discrete responsibilities. Additionally, important relationships take place in endlessly varying larger situations and within widely differing operating environments.

The factors defining a relationship between an organization and an individual (or a fundraiser and a donor) are complex. However, these relationships share some core formational elements that also exist in a relationship between individuals. These elements are:

  1. What establishes the connection
  2. How many connections (relational anchors) exist
  3. How (or if) the connection is durable and resilient

Strong relationships lean on the interplay between each of these elements; when the interplay is solid enough, we are likely to have created strength and understanding. Meaning, we’re in a real relationship. Notably, all these elements are or can be represented in your data.

What’s Your Origin Story?

Much like the structure of a story, setting or place for origination is critical in how both sides establish the relationship. Deep, rich relationships have an origin story.

We all have examples of these in our lives—maybe it was the first conversation or engagement you had with someone at your organization when you were applying for your job. Maybe it was when you adopted your pet, or when you met your spouse/partner/friend.

Establishing the relationship is the first “hook,” what I call a relational anchor. It’s the setting for the origin story: the timing, the location, the circumstances that led you there, what your day was like leading up to that point, etc.

In the context of your constituents, how they came to you or where they came from is a critical part of your relationship with them. Higher education development offices have known this for years (alumni/nae codes, anyone?), and many other fundraising organizations use “relationship type” as a proxy for organizing this origin story. But type is hard to distill into a single definition. As McCall explains it, the relationship exists “within widely differing operating environments.”

To understand the origin story, look for all the elements in your data that may provide setting. Here are some questions to ask about your donors that may help you frame this out:

  • How did they first come to your organization? Was it through an event? A first gift?
  • When did they first show up on your organization’s radar? Last year? Last week?
  • Who helped facilitate the introduction to the individual? Was it a discovery by a person on your staff? Was it through one of your constituents? Or did they come to your front door without an introduction?
  • What was going on in the world, country, city, and state when they first showed up? What might explain why they chose to engage with you?

What’s Your Relational Anchor?

Because relational anchors deepen our sense of tribe (which journalist and author Sebastian Junger argues is critical to the human experience), they keep the relationship grounded so that the two parties can stay near each other. This enables them to weather circumstances together by creating a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.

We all seek anchors when meeting new people. “What do you do for fun?” “How do you know Susan?” These questions establish a sense of shared identity, a common ground. You can see yourself in that other person’s shoes. They are “like” you.

Building a fundraiser-donor relationship, particularly for major gifts, can often depend on discovering that connecting point. Here are some questions that may help you find relational anchors:

  • In what ways are your donors/prospects like you?
  • How have they shown you that?
  • What are the proxies for that in your data?

Relational anchors go beyond personality, educational background, or common acquaintances. Affinity for your mission, involvement in the community, association with cure-cause organizations, and past charitable giving can provide an entry point for you as a fundraiser to make a meaningful connection.

How do you know if relational anchoring is taking effect? Your constituents’ actions tell you if they’re feeling a connection: taking a visit, responding to a solicitation or call to action, providing an update to their information, or making a first gift.

Doing the Work to Make the Relationship Durable

You understand where your relationship began as a foundation, and you have a set of relational anchors to build upon. The final factor in determining relational strength is its durability.

As in person-to-person relationships, there are “healthy” nonprofit-donor relationships. Sustaining a durable relationship between an organization and an individual requires attentiveness and responsiveness over the course of your affiliation. Consider these questions to determine the durability of your constituent relationship.

  • Does the relationship feel mutually beneficial?
  • Does each side feel heard?
  • Do we see ourselves as a key part of the other’s narrative?
  • What tests has a relationship been through together?
  • How many relational anchors do we have together?

To achieve durability, you and your donor must overcome challenges together. You must show up for each other in authentic, trackable ways. Remember, every element of your donor relationship is represented by data points. Frequency of positive interactions on both sides is a strong indicator of durability.

  • From the fundraiser’s side: regular cadence of personalized communications, gift acknowledgments, invitations to events
  • From the donor’s side: volunteer engagements, giving a gift, updating their information so you can stay connected

Data and Relationships, the Context Clues

Successful fundraisers lean on both internal and external data to build relationships with constituents. External data augments your internal data, providing insights about causes donors may be passionate about or what their preferences may be.  Blackbaud, for instance, offers a variety of data-driven solutions—modeling services, consulting, and intelligent applications—that can help you generate a better understanding of your constituents.

Though this external data is invaluable, don’t overlook one of the richest data sources that you have internally: conversations with your constituents.

One of the challenges I found during my time as a prospect development professional was that it could take me weeks to find data that a gift officer could uncover on the spot with a few thoughtful questions. There’s an asymmetric upside to conversations with your constituencies; not only does it give you an opportunity to reinforce a sense of shared identity based on the relationship you’ve already established, but it also gives you a chance to find new relational anchors. In fundraising, any opportunity to deepen or enrich the conversation with constituents is a valuable one. Every conversation or engagement is an opportunity to refine the data you already have and to collect new data.

The fundraising staff of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation leverages a full range of internal and external data, qualitative and quantitative. Analyzing constituent this data helps the team build relationships, not replace them.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as being able to identify those you know have been supporters and engaging in more meaningful conversations with them,” said Krista Lippert, associate director of the foundation’s data center.

Before you engage in a meeting or virtual exchange with a constituent, take some time to run through what you already know about the constituent, but also consider what you don’t know. Use these known unknowns to guide your questions and the conversation. A few prompts for you and your team to connect with a constituent:

  • What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun?
  • Where do you like to go for vacation? Where did you last go?
  • What are you reading? What are you intrigued or interested by?
  • What do you feel passionate about? What makes you feel good?

Never underestimate the power of a well-timed or thoughtful question to uncover a relational anchor.

With this in mind, consider the streams of data—both qualitative and quantitative—to which you have access. Also, consider how to codify that information so you can successfully leverage it.

Data and Relationships, the New Era of Scaled Computation and AI

One of the great challenges for every organization as it matures is how to deal with scale. This is especially relevant for your dataset. As it (and your organization) grows with new and diverse relationships, connection that was once easy to maintain becomes more difficult.

To better handle scale, data scientists and product developers, such as the team at the Data Intelligence Center of Excellence at Blackbaud, focus on the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI). AI technology will be transformational in the nonprofit sector, helping organizations grow their footprint, manage growth, and deepen their impact on the world.

Part of the industry’s optimism about AI is based on the foundational characteristics of the technology. AI can consume a vast dataset and draw relationships between the data that are nuanced and often surprising. AI is less burdened by logical fallacies; it looks for correlations between data elements and teases them out so you can act on them.

AI also can manage structured (quantitative) and unstructured (qualitative) datasets, allowing for more flexibility in the inputs it considers. This is especially important in the context of the core elements we’ve discussed in this post. Access to data and the ability to interpret that data for your organization’s specific purposes opens new opportunities to identify unexpected interactions between data related to setting, relational anchors, and durability.

The interplay between human relationships and AI has the potential to unlock a golden era for the nonprofit sector. Relationship, though, is the key. Nurturing human-to-human connection (with an assist from technology) is the pathway to a successful mission, one where we better understand the core relationship elements with our constituents and can deepen the partnership to extend our impact on the world.