Data And What Donors Don’t Know

May 15, 2009       Paul Clolery      

Data has always been about the people that the numbers or categories represent. Many marketers just never saw it that way. Social networks and the unprecedented amount of information now available are further humanizing data.

Prospect number 4321 was always a white female, age 55, who lived in the suburbs, gave to her church and subscribed to knitting magazines, along with grandparenting publications. She also made the occasional purchase from the Home Shopping Network and gave to health charities. Now, it’s very likely she’s online using a Facebook page.

Data is coming from every direction. It can be captured but how it is used is still up for debate. Do you really need some of the prospect information? What is private and what is not? Can information from social networks be harnessed for something more than a special event?

Data and its implications was the topic of an NPT Executive Session roundtable, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Gathered for the discussion were: Rachael Ahrens, senior interactive specialist, Convio, Austin, Texas; Rita Allen, manager, Nonprofit Group, Fresh Address, Newton, Mass., Sally Boucher, client service manager, WealthEngine.com, Bethesda. Md.; Charlie Cadigan, managing director, Frontline Data Group, Vienna, Va.; and, Gretchen Littlefield, president, Triplex, Washington, D.C.

The conversation was led by Paul Clolery, vice president/editorial director NPT Publishing Group, and Rick Christ, vice president, Online Fundraising, Amergent, Peabody, Mass.   Paul Clolery: The discussion we’re going to have today is data, what is being collected, what’s being used, and what we should be looking at and perhaps preparing for in the next five years, if we can even look that far down the road with the way technology is evolving.

First, let’s get a definition. What do you consider data? Give me a definition.

Rick Christ: I would define it as useful information in terms of developing or cultivating a relationship between a nonprofit organization and its supporters.   Clolery: But what specifically do you consider data? Do you consider income? Do you consider age? Do you consider ethnicity? Is there anything that’s off limits?

Christ: What’s off limits is what’s irrelevant, or what the person wants as private. You know we were just in a meeting, where one of the speakers is from the Human Rights Campaign who represents and who lobbies for the interests of gay, lesbian, transgender individuals. Would it be relevant in that database to know whether someone is gay, lesbian, transsexual? Perhaps. Is it relevant in my database of senior citizens? Absolutely not. Is it relevant for Social Security? Absolutely not. It would be outrageous to keep it. You have to care about the donor. Libertarians probably want very little data in their database.

Charlie Cadigan: I think it’s the difference between data and information and it has to be actionable. We as direct marketers collect lots of data. We’re challenged by making sure the data we collect is “relevant.” That’s probably the better word because it’s relevant to the marketing decisions and actions we take.

Many organizations move in a direction to collect data that has little long-term value. I would argue that there are a lot of organizations that need to have “data police,” someone who challenges the capture and retention long-term to say what’s the relevance of this three to five years from now?

Typically, there is very little long-term relevance to that data. And, you spend time and money collecting it. One of the best examples of collecting actionable information was some of the health-related nonprofits years ago. They focused on and looked at how they could further define and segment their populations, whether it’s types of cancer or types of arthritis. That makes them available to communicate in a more focused way to the people that they’re serving. And that makes it more real, more valuable.

Sally Boucher: But that’s pretty much prohibited by HIPPA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulation now. Fundraisers cannot use that diagnosis information for fundraising purposes, if they (donors) don’t opt in.

Cadigan: They certainly can’t share it, you’re absolutely right. But there are 110 different types of arthritis. To be able to have the nine or 10 categories on which you’re providing relevant information is pretty important data. If I have osteoarthritis, I’m may not be as concerned about rheumatoid, but I’m really interested in osteo. To be able to message back that information becomes very relevant, very meaningful, and very valuable.

Rachael Ahrens: It’s also not so much keeping track of who these people are, but what they want. It’s asking them not just, “Is this the condition you have?,” or “Is this what group you’re in?,” but also “What do you want to hear about?”

Christ: That’s a better point. We’re not asking them about themselves or what they want. We try to infer, from a lot of this information, what they want.

Ahrens: It’s almost more relevant if you ask them: “What do you want to hear about?” as opposed to “What are you?” That way we’re not presumptuously deciding what you’re about.

Gretchen Littlefield: Right. That’s the social networking edge of it — the new way to collect data and the new way people are communicating. We all understand the basics of how to use traditional data. Now we need to use the new tools available to take it further.

Clolery: You were saying something a while ago that peaked my interest, that the social networks are now ripe for compiling lists.

Littlefield: Facebook is becoming the biggest database in the world. And the great thing about it is it’s being updated …

Christ: By the users.

Littlefield: By the users, and in most cases, every day.

Clolery: Is that information being marketed?

Littlefield: Some of it. Facebook and others like it at some point must become profitable and they are likely to move further in that direction.

Ahrens: The ads on Facebook are relevant to your profile information.

Clolery: And, the people using Facebook know that they’re being modeled?

Ahrens: Well, you can tell pretty much, if you’re paying attention to the ads.

Littlefield: Yes, they do. Dell computer is doing a promotion right now. On my Facebook page, I’m now getting advertisements for Dell computers. It’s telling me which one of my friends is using which Dell computer model. It’s very targeted. What’s sort of interesting about it, too, is that as traditional direct marketers we tend to think of geographic information, and how we connect people together and things that they might have in common and interest level.

Christ: Because it’s all we had for awhile.

Littlefield: Right. But now, in the electronic age, we’re thinking about with whom people are connected, not so much geography. So the people that I’m connected with on Facebook have a lot more in common with me, and probably are going to buy the same types of products and give to the same causes than my neighbors would on my street. I know that for a fact. I think that’s a significant change from the way that people used data and the tasks and targeting. We already know the geographic information. Now we must take the data to a new level.

Cadigan: It’s also a higher level of trust. They’re going to trust your recommendation as opposed to if you get a recommendation, to use your example, from a neighbor. You’re probably not going to trust the recommendation from a neighbor, as compared to someone on Facebook. It’s the reason why all these “Angie’s lists” have gone crazy in terms of success, because people are trusting and looking for that trust connection.

Rita Allen: That’s where my take is when I think of data. I think of integrity of data and I think of intention of data and the will of the recipient from our perspective of providing additional data for someone’s donor constituent list, applicable to their needs.

People protect their email address like their social security number. They’re very concerned, very able, to knock out a legitimate email by hitting spam. They have that vehicle at home. They can take direct mail and put it in the trash, or with a telephone call they can just avoid it and let it go to voice mail. So data, from my perspective, is all about the intent and the volunteeredness and the opt-in and the integrity. Trust is important.

Clolery: One of the largest revenue streams of a nonprofit is the list swap, and list rental income. You know so much about an individual now from either a Facebook page, or from somewhere else. What is actually fair game to swap with another organization?

Littlefield: I think even these questions are starting to change. I have a lot of people who are asking me questions that 10 years ago they would have never considered like: Why can’t we model inside of a merge?; Why can’t we take that information and start to hone in and draw people out?

Of course you have to get everybody’s permission. You can’t do things without the list owner’s permission, but why don’t people do that right now? Some of these rules that were put in place 20 to 30 years ago need to evolve as the world changes.

Christ: I’m reminded of something I learned well before 1985 from Paul Goldner, who ran a list processing company before ZIP codes. One of the things he said about merge/purge is that it isn’t the objective of merge/purge to remove the duplicates. It’s the objective of merge/purge to remove every name that won’t respond.

Littlefield: That’s correct. That is always our focus, the big picture.

Christ: Now, we’ll never get there but he said that’s what you need to look for.

Littlefield: That’s right. He’s dead on.

Christ: We talked about getting permission of the list owner. I think the issue of permission is shifting from the list owner to the person who’s name is …

Littlefield: To the individual. You don’t own people, anymore, not in the traditional sense that direct marketers believed.

Christ: Well yeah, and we never did. But now we’re all conscious of that.

Boucher: I think it’s up to the individual who’s putting that information out there to realize that it’s information in the public domain and that it is going to be used. The onus is really in the social networking scheme of things. The onus is on the individual to protect the information that they want to keep protected. Of course, nonprofits have to be very careful and respectful in their collection and dissemination of that type of data.

Christ: You were a major gifts officer for a while and so it was important for you to know from a major gifts prospect, some relatively personal things — their favorite sports team, and their interests, but there’s a difference between that and,

Boucher: Selling that.

Christ: Right, sharing that information in that context…

Boucher: As a major gift officer and as an institution that is protecting those contact reports, that is private information and I don’t think we can be selling that. That belongs to an institutional database and it should not be shared with other people.

Clolery: What types of information are people asking you for at this point?

Boucher: We are primarily an organization that is collecting asset information that’s all in the public domain. That information, interest areas, donations that they’re making to other organizations, is very helpful in forming a picture of the prospect’s interests.

People are very interested now in getting a little bit beyond just the asset information and looking into modeling their database. They want to make better use of the data that they have already collected. They want to make it very specific to that organization. It’s not a generic model that they’re after anymore but a very specific one: “What do my major donors look like?” and “How do these other people look, similar or different?”

Clolery: Given what has happened in the markets lately, what does a major donor look like these days?

Boucher: They look different for every organization. If you’re looking at a major university, they’re looking at people who can give $100,000 or more. If you’re looking at your local humane society, they’re looking at someone who can give $5,000.

So, the major donor looks very different, but it’s typically somebody who owns real estate, and a significant amount of real estate. It’s somebody who’s an insider at a public company, somebody who has a private company ownership position, somebody who has a foundation, a family foundation or is an officer in the public foundation.

So, you know you’re collecting that data and you’re saying they meet these criteria, and they’re probably a good prospect too, at least capacity-wise for a major donor. The organization really needs to decide if they have a connection with that donor, and whether that donor has an interest in any of the funding possibilities that the organization is offering.

Clolery: Is it easier to collect data on people these days?

Boucher: Oh, yes.

Littlefield: Building models is not only easier, but very accurate.

Allen: There isn’t anything you can’t collect.

Boucher: It’s easy to collect too much data. We see organizations that still feel like because they can get that data that they need to collect a 14-page profile on every prospect. What they need to do is collect enough information to say “Is this a good viable major gift prospect?” And then run with that, assign it out for an assessment visit, before you invest a lot of resources in research.

Clolery: Is the capability of the software the driving, what people collect? For example, in a flat file, you go one, two, three, four, five, straight across. But now with the relational databases you can go ping ping ping all over and bring data from a lot of different areas and apply it to a lot of different areas. Is the ability to gather this information driving what people ask for or collect?

Cadigan: Yes and no. I think there are tremendous vehicles out there to store and capture data. Some of the software solutions out there are very powerful. I would argue that there are very few people harnessing anywhere near the potential that’s there.

For instance, just about every system out there has the ability to capture information about package content, message content, and trying to tell the difference between inferred interest and confirmed interest. A lot of organizations aren’t harnessing that and using that information to message appropriately.

I think we’re moving toward an environment where it’s one message to a smaller universe and variable messaging. We’re seeing that in email, the ability to have different looks and feels for different people based on their own experience with the organization.

The commercial world is moving toward a place where they’re almost going to have to have to rethink the whole survey research idea, because people just aren’t responding. There is a need to be able to get valuable information. There’s going to have to be a trade of information, or trade of value, where they’re going to begin paying people to participate, and that has its own ramifications. There are a lot of lower barriers on the Internet.

Ahrens: This raises an interesting question. Why do people feel comfortable putting their whole life out to all their friends on Facebook but they won’t fill out a packet and offer their email address.

Cadigan: It’s trust.

Allen: I had that discussion with some young people about their awareness of how far their inclusions in Facebook reach. I was talking to them about a hiring process that I used to vet candidates. I’m not alone. This is industry standard. You know that your friends are putting photographs of you that could be incriminating. It’s not on your site but it’s somewhere else. So I’m not necessarily sure that the public is totally aware, the younger public, of how available…

Cadigan: Aren’t they giving up control though?

Allen: I don’t know if they’re aware they are.

Cadigan: You just made the point that people placing photos or other information out there. I just talked to someone who is relatively new to the organization and she said she took down her Facebook page because there was stuff on there that was not professional.

Christ: But, that’s not enough. If she and I went to a party and somebody took a picture and posted it on my site, I can identify her and the other people in that picture. She has no control after the picture is taken.

Littlefield: What people need to understand is that our very definition for trust, control over information, standards and practices, are changing.

Allen: So the only control is knowledge, of, what, making this choice of where to go? The universe is bigger than you can imagine. Is the point that if you opt-in here, or if you opt-in to put things on your Facebook page, that you’ve given up that control?

Ahrens: I wonder what makes people feel so comfortable giving up that control?

Allen: I don’t know.

Clolery: That stuns me. Maybe people are becoming immune to a negative reaction about some of this. For example, a photo of a major New Jersey politician passed out naked on his porch before his election was posted by one of his opponents. He still won the election. Are we becoming so immune to be having a bad reaction to…

Littlefield: I would argue that sometimes, yes, granted it depends how negative that information is that is out there.

That’s the extreme version, but you know there are other things that people get very sensitive about. However, I think that sometimes having information out there that people might use negatively can actually be a positive, too, because it makes you more human.  I have learned that from my years in politics.

I use Facebook and it’s an odd thing for me to get used to this idea, this flow of information. After awhile it starts to take on a life of its own because as you have more friends, everyone starts posting things to each other, and about you, and there’s things on there you can’t control and you shouldn’t try to control. People post pictures. But you know, on the other hand, I think that is not necessarily a negative. People are adapting.

Clolery: It’s almost a positive that I have no friends.

Christ: It’s the key to my success.

Allen: AT&T blasted out at an American Idol campaign that met with huge opposition from individuals who received it, granted they had an AT&T phone and that people knew, AT&T knew, they had free text, but they got so many complaints that they apologized.

Christ: Because that’s an intrusive communication.

Allen: Exactly. And I’m not necessarily sure that the folks who post different things on social networking are even aware that it might be, in different forms, considered an intrusion.

Cadigan: Just because you have the information doesn’t necessarily mean you should use it. I mean, one of the great examples of that was when Caller ID first started and you were an inbound agency and people were making phone calls and you knew who was calling. It’s a tremendous value to verify address, name, spelling of name and information. You don’t necessarily need to answer the phone and say, “Hello Ms. Allen, how are you?”

I think some of the wealth screening tools are probably good examples. You have tremendous information about a donor, and some of that you’re going to validate through conversation. You’re going to validate information and capture it, but you don’t necessarily use that or share what you have.

Boucher: No. You don’t want to be going out as a major gift officer and letting the prospect know that you know everything about their financial situation.

Clolery: Isn’t that a little duplicitous? I want to research somebody and get to know them really well. If I’m going to meet somebody I’ll go online and read a lot about them, and I probably won’t tell them that I read his third grade story on the tree. But, when you’re asking somebody for money, doesn’t that take it to a new level?

Littlefield: I have experience from my past work in major donor fundraising. Most of those donors know you know that stuff in advance. If they’re at the top of the ladder and they’re successful, they get a lot of calls. They know that they’re rich and they know that everyone knows that they’re rich.

Cadigan: They’re happy about it.

Boucher: That doesn’t bother most of them and most of them will tell you that information if you ask them conversationally. A lot of times the research is good in just getting that hook to get in the door, to know what sort of funding priority they’re going to connect with that the institution offers.

When you get to the point where you’re formulating your ask amount, that research can help you decide whether this is a $25,000 donor or a $100,000 donor. That’s really where that financial information can play into it. We need to be looking at the big picture in advance so that you know how to guide that relationship and who to connect them to within your organization.

Christ: I think if a major donor prospect said to you, “I’d like to see that dossier you have on me,” I think the fair thing to say is “Okay.”

Boucher: Every organization that I have ever worked for makes those public for the donor, if they want to see them. That’s the very reason that you don’t want to put in there a bunch of stuff that is gossipy in nature, or about what lawsuit they’re involved with. Even though those can be relevant as you’re approaching somebody, it’s not something you want to record in the institutional database, in my opinion.

Clolery: So even though Ron Pearlman gave Ellen Barkin millions to go away, he still has a lot of money so you’re not going to even mention the divorce. You’re still going to ask for a big gift.

Boucher: Yeah, and that’s in the public domain. That’s a different thing than if your local donor was in a messy divorce. You want to keep it quiet. You want to respect your donors. That’s the hallmark of earning that trust that we’re talking about. You treat them as you would want to be treated.

Clolery: Has there been a request given to anybody around the table lately that made you just stop and say, “Do I really want to collect that information?” or “Do I really want to provide that information if I’ve got it in the system?”

Allen: Our clients generally will provide us their customer or donor list and ask us to do one of three things — they’ll ask us to append an email address, they’ll ask us to provide an updated email address, or maybe they just need it cleaned. Often in cases where we message, the line is drawn under best practices when you really don’t have a previous relationship when it’s kind of a “I got this list provided and I have permission for the list…” Unless these are people with whom you’ve had a previous relationship, it doesn’t cut it.

For these systems, and, more frequently, because of maybe the economy, or just the way things are going, we’re asked where that boundary line is, more often, instead of having it assumed.

Clolery: Let me understand here. Somebody comes to you with a list and you’re not sure where they got the list from, you won’t append that information?

Allen: It’s trust in the relationship with the client, as well, or the partner, to have an understanding. We’re going to figure it out pretty quickly once we start appending the prospect list because it’s going to generate spam complaints. When that subject line comes up, we would love to have 95 percent opportunity to know that the organization requesting permission is going to be recognized.

So, I put myself in the position of being the recipient of one of those emails, and understanding I might know of this group, or organization, but I haven’t had any involvement back and forth with direct mail, telecalling, anything. So, let’s ask the question six different ways and five different times and on different days to be sure that, initially, we’re comfortable with what we’re looking for here. We’re looking for a previous relationship, not just a, “Well, someone gave me their name.” That’s not a previous relationship.

Littlefield: Some of what’s happening is so new — especially in the social networks. It is an interesting challenge to determine what’s okay to do and what’s not because the technology is moving faster than the ethics discussions, which makes things difficult.

One of the questions I’m getting recently is “could we go onto social networks if someone gives us a list of their donors,” or “you know their online activists, we can go on social networks and tell you which social networks they’re on and how many friends they have.” Right now we’re just saying, “Okay this person has 200 friends on Facebook, and 300 on Linkedln.” Now it’s gone to the next stage where people are saying “Can you return those email addresses back to us and tell us who those friends are?”

Cadigan: So they want to harvest?

Littlefield: Right. We are very aware of CANspam. We are moving in a slightly different direction, matching back to a street address and returning that information to the clients.

Allen: The request is out there.

Littlefield: The request is out there and, you know, would it work from a marketing angle? Yes, I think it would. Does it make sense for a nonprofit to try to solicit their donor’s friends? Yes. Would it most likely get a donation? Probably. Is it the right decision or ethical? We are working through complicated issues.

Christ: What you’re doing is bypassing the friend part, and saying, “Your friend Charlie gave to the organization and you should, too,” instead of letting Charlie do it.

Ahrens: I believe that’s how Facebook was set up. An individual is meant to ask friends to join their cause. If marketers skip over that part completely and ask themselves, it would be strange.

Cadigan: Well, you’re kind of making the assumption of a relationship. And you’re right, it is an area that’s undefined. And as people in Europe accurately describe, the United States is kind of the Wild Wild West of data. I think boundaries that have to be vetted are probably the best way to look at it. For an organization to go beyond that, there’s a huge exposure.

Littlefield: This is just one example that I’m citing because it’s one that people have been talking about recently, “Could you physically do it?” Yes. “Will we do it?” This is not Europe. So, we and our clients need to determine our own boundaries.

But that’s just one example, there’s a lot more out there, other ways people can gather information. Things are changing very quickly and they’re moving faster on the technology end. I wonder where this stuff is going to end, too. In the mail, you send an acquisition letter. Do I have a relationship with them? No. Why is it different on the Internet? It is part of updating old thinking.

Clolery: Exactly right. Why is it harvesting on the Internet when you can just pick up any list you want and do acquisitions in the mail. Why is it not the correct way to do acquisition on the Internet?

Cadigan: It’s the same reason why it’s different to call someone at home, on a land-based phone, than call them on their cell phone.

Clolery: But there’s federal law when it comes to cell phones because the incoming call costs the person receiving it.

Christ: Federal law arose from a perception of what’s appropriate.

Cadigan: And then the same is true with direct mail versus fax. Now that’s changed, certainly, but there is law around faxes.   Clolery: With the cell phones, depending on the plan that you have, you could get charged for somebody calling, which is why it’s not a matter of access, it’s not a matter of what they might like, it’s a matter of, if you made that call, that person would get charged. That’s why that law was written.

Cadigan: The difference is, and now here is another variation, “okay, we went from landline to cell, now let’s go to text” and people would say “Well that’s pretty cool.” So, there’s perceived communication.

Cell phones, I think demographically, probably break for people who are younger who get phone calls from an organization they believe in. It is going to be different from someone who is probably older and has a much stronger sense of privacy, potentially.

Now I have a question. Do you think, from a privacy standpoint, that younger people, I mean younger than 30, are more concerned or less concerned about privacy? I’m kind of pivoting off the whole Facebook conversation because I think there is a sense of lower barriers to access of information and almost a laissez-fare way of thinking. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t know the answers.

Allen: My gut feeling is yes, and I think they’re feeling it as a tool in their lifeline. There was a wonderful Good Morning America segment on parents who were concerned that their child ran up a 70-page bill for text messaging. They’re sleeping with it on, and they wake up to it. They’re using it all the time. This is their vehicle and it’s also a little bit impersonal so you don’t have to take the time and pay attention to an email or with the cell phone. It goes very quickly.

My gut feeling is they’re not quite as concerned as we might have been in the secrecy of privacy years ago. For nonprofits, I think they need to value their list and determine and if they have a big youth population that they want to make aware of a certain date and time to be somewhere. They’re all used to this.

Cadigan: Which to me sounds like one of the ripples in the pond of marketing that we have from the Obama campaign is he’s rewritten some of the marketing rules because he’s the breakthrough for mobile, for texting, for real-time updates.

Littlefield: Social networking, again, he raised quite a bit of money. I know personally the people who did it. Everyone points to the Web but it really wasn’t email marketing. It was more social networking. It was sort of like Amway online. They were going out and recruiting other people and treated them as donors.

Clolery: Back in the sixties it was the sexual revolution. All the parents were horrified and there was a new way of communicating between people. Now we see this younger generation, the generation of the hookup, and the way they get together. Have we seen each generation become less and less inhibited about what they’re willing to share — from the 30s to the 40s to the 50s to the 60s to the 70s to now?

Cadigan: You have a much more sophisticated consumer and a much more savvy marketer out there. You have this sophistication of marketing, but you have a consumer who is a well-skilled consumer of nonprofit information.

I think you have a smarter public. They’re much more in tune with the capture and dissemination of marketing information. It’s certainly no secret that the information from a change of address triggers marketers’ availability to your address and update information.

Boucher: Technology really has broken down so many barriers. My children who are teenagers are connected to so many more people than I ever was because it was a matter of where somebody moves, or whether one of their friends went to college over in Glasgow. They were constantly in contact. When my mother went to college she could only call back home once every two months because of the expense of a long distance call. So things have changed so rapidly it’s really broken down a lot of barriers.

Allen: I agree with you Charlie and I think part of it is the relaxed attention to social detail. It isn’t necessarily proper form anymore to write a handwritten note. It isn’t necessarily the best dating practice to only have the male invite the female, or pay. Now with technology moving at the speed of light, it’s about what’s expedient.

Clolery: So relationships are “expedient” and not relationships?

Littlefield: Some of them are expedient, quick contacts. Others develop over time but using new tools.

Allen: I’ve got three grown children and I’m absolutely amazed at how quickly things develop. Where I might have decided to get together with someone and it might have taken a couple of days to pull together, two hours later everybody’s meeting at the same place at the same page with the same purpose. Yes, I think it’s a matter of expedience, their time is very valuable, and 24 hours still are only 24 hours but they pack more into it. Am I speaking to the converted here?

Ahrens: Even the most sacred and official relationships have changed. I just finished a job search. You used to have to write a formal letter of thanks and mail it the day you had your interview. But now you can send emails saying “Thanks, great to meet you.” It felt strange to do that but it felt like it was appropriate.

Clolery: Yes, but yours is a tech company. You would expect that at a tech company.

Ahrens: Perhaps, but it still felt overly friendly.

Christ: I can imagine saying, “Now don’t spend that $5 until you’ve texted your Grandma and said ‘Thank you.’”

Clolery: Spoken like a true geek grandparent.

Cadigan: One of the factors is the compression of time. Let’s think about our own consumer behaviors, of ordering something, the success of Amazon. Not only do we want the package to be received immediately, we want to know where it is every step of the way because we all can click “track my package.” Some of us are old enough to remember “While You Were Out” messages and trying to return phone calls. Now if you’re not getting back to a client within an hour or two there’s an issue. They want to know where you are.

That sense of compression has accelerated so many communications, the immediacy of Facebook and being able to push those messages to your Blackberry. I talked to someone this morning who said she was tracking where everybody was because there were flight delays out of Boston. She knew more, I would argue, about the weather delays out of Logan than probably the FAA.

Littlefield: I knew where everyone was after the conference last night because of Facebook, because “We’re over at this place, we’re over at this restaurant, meet us” you know that type of thing. It is the flow of information that is changing.

Christ: At the nonprofit technology conference, we were Tweeting through the whole conference so people knew where people were that moment, and spontaneous gatherings were taking place.

Allen: So the different mediums can be applied to the different ages is how they want the contacted.

Ahrens: I think Twitter brings up an interesting point about nonprofits tracking what people are saying about them on blogs. Instead of the usual “What’s my open rate?,” are they also looking at blogs? Are they looking at Twitter and being notified every time someone mentions the organization to see if it’s bad or good attention? Do they respond?

Christ: That’s a fascinating twist on the conversation. Are nonprofits capturing or looking at the information others are putting out there about them, never mind the nonprofits trying to gather information on their constituents or potential constituents?

There’s information that others are gathering on them, are you even aware of that? It’s an interesting conversation. It’s a logical next step.

Ahrens: It’s a totally different way of collecting data.

Christ: But it’s a paradigm shift for many nonprofits to say, “Are you talking about me?” They used to be the only ones talking. They used to control when and how and what you saw about them. There are still many that won’t let go of that power, which is why they won’t succeed on some of these platforms because what if somebody says something bad about you? Yeah, that’s right, it’s a risk.

Clolery: I’m wondering about the control issues. The individual doesn’t have control. The nonprofit doesn’t have control. This unknown entity, Facebook or Twitter or whatever, has control of the information flow. It’s almost like a Seinfeld episode when Newman says to Jerry: “When you control the mail you control information.” But who’s controlling Facebook? Who’s controlling Twitter? And, should the public, nonprofits, individuals, trust their decisions about how that information is going to be presented to the public?

Ahrens: I think that people would be a lot more willing to have the trust with all the social network information if they were given more options. Instead of “How do you want to be talked to” and “how often,” let them tell you and then, do that. It doesn’t seem like it’s rocket science but, it’s really harder than it sounds to just let people tell you what they want.

Clolery: But what about when that third-party entity changes the rules?

Littlefield: That’s where the opportunity is too, right? So you give up control, but that’s where it becomes real. If you’re trying to control your communication out to the public so tightly it won’t become viral.

Not to keep coming back to Obama, but one of the things that worked was that they didn’t try to tell people how to market for the campaign. People were going out and making their own signs, they were making their own contacts.

Clolery: But the message was the same every time. There were message police in that campaign.

Littlefield: Less so than previous campaigns. That was one of the things. They went out there and let things go. That’s how it became interesting because the people could sort of make it their own. Their mass media drove the message and the individuals carried them

Cadigan: Are you talking strategically or tactically? Because tactically, I think you’re absolutely right. Strategically, past campaigns where it’s “It’s the economy stupid,” hit that point every day. Strategically they had some points they were driving every day. Tactically they gave up complete control. I think you’re absolutely right.

Littlefield: They did. It wasn’t complete control, but much more than in the past.

Cadigan: That’s where the people’s individuality rises to the occasion and you get some incredibly creative signs or approaches that you just wouldn’t get ordinarily. That’s an opportunity for nonprofits because of the volunteer capacity, which has been bemoaned by organizations for years. Now, you’ve got the ability to provide a role in a very different and a very unique way, that you create, which is much more powerful and much more meaningful and provides and a much deeper relationship between the individual and the organization.

Littlefield: People want to participate in something where they feel they are in control. It is an individual choice to support an organization or charity.

Cadigan: They’re being told what to do though?

Littlefield: They want to feel like they are driving this themselves.

Christ: People tend to support what they helped to create. If you give them an option to create or modify, or choose, it is going to encourage their support.

Allen: Asking permission, inviting their choice, breeds the trust that the nonprofits really need. I think it is critically important to respect that in people’s data.

Christ: I’d like to go back to something you just said earlier Charlie, when you were talking about using the data and not enough creative uses being made of the data that exists. There is a tendency among some nonprofits to worry about data and to append data as an excuse for not actually raising money.

I did an analysis years ago where I helped a nonprofit learn more information about their donors. I had given them a bunch of information. There was no ability to synchronize. They had to go into their database and update. A week later I said to them “How is that data going?” They said, “Well we’re good, we’re up to the G’s in updating the data.” and I said “Stop! Call the A’s.”

This was the earliest sort of major gift planning. I said “Go have tea, with the people named A” because if it doesn’t work with the A’s why waste money updating the ‘Q’s?

But they said, “Well we want to get the data.” No, they were just afraid to pick up the phone and by hiring us for three weeks, they put off that calling for three weeks. Just pick up the phone and call or write a letter.

You can’t use this “I need to know everything about,” because as we talk, information moves at light speed and that information, by the time they got to the “Q’s”, half the “A’s” information had changed.

Use the information you have and be passionate about your cause. I think a caution has to go out to nonprofit executives who will read this article. The caution is don’t get all hung up on the latest and greatest data. Don’t say “I can’t do anything until I have the data.”

Put a privacy statement in place for your organization. Build some basic parameters of respect. Use the information you already have that fits that criteria and go do good things with it. That’s the key. And then, when you’ve done all the good things you need, you can go back and look for the next best thing.

Cadigan: I would add that you have to look holistically at an organization’s assets. The assets that they have might not be immediately apparent. I think organizations miss huge opportunities because they’re looking with blinders on about their own area. We can call it “silo” or whatever you want to call it.

They’re only aware of what they’re aware of. There might be tremendous data opportunities that could then be turned into actionable information that is within their organization. That sense of assessment is a great first step to kind of understand what they have.

Littlefield: It is important to take what they have, make it relevant and then improve it.

Boucher: I agree with what both of you have said. We see in major gift fundraising all the time the idea that “I’ve got to know more and more and more about this prospect before I can make this call.” It really is paralyzing.

In the past, an organization would take a database of 300,000 records and send it out for screening and get a paralyzing amount of data back and they just sit on it. By the time it makes its slow way out to the front line fundraisers, it’s stale data.

As organizations are learning to integrate those screening processes and other data collection processes into their donor management systems, and into their workflow, instead of screening 300,000 records at once, they’ll just screen my graduating class of 1960. They are going to get a reunion committee together and screen that class to see who should be on the committee. The alumni association can look at that data and use it. The major gift officers can use it to decide whom to approach for a reunion gift and the annual fund can use it. If it’s integrated back into a central place, that’s much more useful. You can leverage it across the organization and you can get the data in a timely fashion that you can act on immediately.

Christ: I’m fascinated by the way this conversation went. I usually just make a couple of questions, just in case. It’s never happened before but there wasn’t a dull moment in the conversation.

My questions were all technical in nature, about where data comes from, and how to append it and how to analyze it.

Clolery: Let’s do some of that. Throw a few of those out.

Christ: Okay, well let’s look at the typical NonProfit Times reader who you could describe better than I can but it’s…

Clolery: Senior level executives who have been in the business about 17.5 years, CEO, CFO, VP Development, director of development.

Christ: At what level of the nonprofit? From the very large down to…

Clolery: They are all $1 million plus. The vast majority are in the $5 million to $20 million range. Obviously, the nonprofit world is like the Continental Shelf, you’ve got your monsters and then the size drops and levels off and drops again. The vast majority of nonprofits are at less than $10 million so that’s the core of our readership.

Cadigan: All incredibly good looking.

Clolery: Of course.

Christ: What do they need to understand after reading this article? It’s to have an understanding of what they’re not aware of, where to go from here. What’s the first thing they should do?

Ahrens: I think taking your VIP donors or people who are gung ho, diehard fans, and instead of trying to collect data from everyone on the list or trying to build your list with the unknown, start by asking your fans, “What do you like to hear about? Where do you hang out?”

Starting with the people you already know, create some kind of advisory panel. Starbucks did it with their Passion Panel. They just sent a note to their stores and asked: “Who are the regulars?” They were given a password, asked to go online, take surveys and participate in discussions with other diehards.

Let people present ideas about what they want to do. You can still say “Yes” or “No.” Start there because you already know those people’s names and addresses.

Cadigan: Starting with the raving fans?

Ahrens: Yeah, at least they’ll hopefully be honest with you. You’re going to bring them even closer by asking them to advise you. It’s a cultivation tactic. But just like the incarnation of social networks, those are the people who might ask their friends. So they wish to be asked, how do they think their friends should be asked and where should you go to ask them.” It might just be a starting point. They’re sure to have some good information about your target audience, at least.

Boucher: Sounds like a focus group.

Allen: I think Webinars, conferences, white papers on sites where organizations and businesses provide these services are critically good to evaluate. There are an awful lot of big holes in the understanding of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate and what you going do with this data. And what do you do next when you get the data before it goes old.

Boucher: They need to analyze where they’re going to have the biggest impact. If they’re only doing direct mail, look at the data that can inform that or do some internal data modeling with the data that they already have to improve the way they’re using it. If they’re into major gifts, and major gifts can make a major impact to their fundraising bottom line, then you want to be looking at investing in that type of data.

Clolery: When does data become ripe? It’s expensive. What cycle should you be on to update data so that you’re not approaching somebody who just lost their house.   Allen: Well from different perspectives — hygiene of email, you can’t do that enough. Depending on the nature of your list, size of your list and your budget, you want to build that into your annual budget. Email addresses there’s a 35 percent attrition rate a year. So if you’re not using data the minute it’s provided to you by either an update or an append, then you’re losing time. So you need to be ready to go when get that data. From other appends, we know NCOA (National Change of Address), it used to be 18 months now…

Littlefield: It is required every 90 days now. So, it’s quarterly for almost all data appends. That’s a standard practice now.

Cadigan: From the marketer’s standpoint and the services that we’re providing, a lot of organizations need to evaluate their data practices. We hear of situations where people are not bringing in changes of address, they’re just not finding it on to their file. And again that gets into the asset, understanding the assets of the organization. Are they doing the things that everyone should be doing in terms of change of address and capturing data off of change information?

The question was how often should you do it. It’s an ongoing discussion that really never ends. Now, you can use overlay tools, certainly in major gift fundraising, understanding where someone is in their lifecycle, so data birth information is extraordinarily useful and helpful. Those are investments and once you make it, you have that information.

Clolery: Data is more than just their address. Data is the in