March 27, 2019

What data really matters?

George Weiner

George Weiner, Founder and Chief Whaler of Whole Whale, a social impact tech company, sits down with us to discuss all things data—why it matters for nonprofits, what data to pay attention to, how to visualize and share it, and how to get started with Google Analytics.

This is a must-listen if you’re a nonprofit communicator responsible for collecting and measuring data related to your mission, or a nonprofit leader looking to foster a more data-driven culture at your organization.


Sarah Durham: Hey! Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Durham, and I’m here with my buddy, George Weiner, who is the Chief Whaler at Whole Whale.

Whole Wale is a social impact tech company, and I’m delighted to have you here with me today, George. Thanks for coming.

George Weiner: Thanks, Sarah. We’re obviously fans, because we’re both part of the animal kingdom together.

Sarah Durham: Exactly.

George Weiner: Both aquatic faring creatures. Yes, at Whole Whale we do a lot of social impact tech. We’re really trying to leverage data and technology, actually, to close the knowledge gap in the social impact sector and that takes many forms.

The most common is agency, where we help our clients do more with the wealth of data and tech in their backyards.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, so that’s why I invited George on the show today. It seems to me that a lot of nonprofits are drowning in data and struggling with technology—struggling to keep up with what matters, what counts and how to manage it all in a challenging environment.

So let’s dig into that. Why does data matter in the first place?

George Weiner: Frankly, to ignore it is to ignore the greatest asset available. This is the lifeblood, the water of whatever your organization is working on, and I would argue that our sector has always cared about data because that’s where the impact came from. If you weren’t feeding enough people, if you weren’t helping enough people make it out of the school to prison pipeline, you know, nonprofits were the leaders throughout the years.

The thing that is different in our current day and age is the past decade—the explosion of dashboards, the measured life, the measured work, and the variety and velocity of information—is far outpacing our ability to consume it.

So now you’re sitting as an executive in a room, and you turn on any device you’re looking at, the one you’re holding right now, and you have another dashboard. You have another KPI thrown at you.

In order to make sense of that, you have to take a step back. And so, I’m going to give you a little pause there.

Sarah Durham: Well, I’ve heard you talk about, also, the poverty of attention, and I’m curious what that means, and how that fits in, too, to all these dashboards and all these things we now have at our fingertips.

George Weiner: Yeah. We can sort of have dashboards and data as like a warm blanket to say, “Hey, we walked into our organization’s hallway, right through the main door, and we have it on the first TV screen you see. We did it. We have data. We have a data culture.”

What ends up happening is that the wealth of information generates a poverty of attention, and just to give you a quick example, right now, you’re listening to this podcast, but you’re also maybe walking down the street, or driving somewhere. You’re seeing signs, you’re processing the fact that maybe a train’s in front of you. What is that person wearing? What was I just talking about?

How are you now able to come back to the words I’m saying and say, “Hey, here’s information that this person’s giving me,” in the same way that when you look at a Facebook Insight report, and you’re saying, “Why the heck do I care about 60,000 as a reach number on a post that happened on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m.? How does that relate to us helping more kids?”

I mean, that is what we’re talking about, that we’re in a wash of this information, and so, we need a much brighter spotlight, frankly, to bring our attention to where it should be.

Sarah Durham: For a nonprofit communicator, somebody who’s in-house managing communications, what are the kinds of metrics you would encourage them to be focusing on, or what kind of dashboard? I imagine there’s just a handful of analytics you would encourage people to start with, or to make primary in their dashboards? What would that look like?

George Weiner: I think the starting point is follow the data. Make sure you understand where it is all stored, where it’s all kept. Certainly, as you get into discussions of GDPR, the General Data Protection Rights, and saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s make sure we don’t get hacked, let’s make sure we know where things are,” make sure your house is in order.

So, first, you have to properly collect, store the information. Then create visualizations of it. So, yes, we do need dashboards, but once you’re pretty fundamentally at that level, right, “I know I can find numbers on pretty much anything I want,” now we get into the fun part.

The fun part, actually, is best put forward by a book called, Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?, about a rowing team in the 2000 Olympics that had this British coach that comes in and says, “Look, you’re in the worst team, so it can only go up from here.” And by effectively saying, “I will need you to say to everything you do, ‘Will it make the boat go faster?'”, and that’s the ultimate metric. The food you eat. The exercises you do. The sleep you have or don’t have. Will it make the boat go faster?

And as a leader—and I imagine we have a decent amount of leaders listening to this—that is where you don’t need to be a data analyst, you need to be a captain. You need to be the person saying, “This is the metric of, ‘Will it make the boat go faster?'” And maybe that is monthly reoccurring donors. That is a number that you realize, if this number was up, good things will happen, because by the way— Then, on the impact side, I’ve got the number of trainings that we did for young people in need. And that’s the number there.

Now, any time you bring me a dashboard or a number, I am going to ask you, “Will it make the boat go faster?” And now we have context, and you can get to do great sorts of analysis inside of that.

Sarah Durham: I love that metaphor, and I also love that you touched on the power of design, or the expression of that dashboard. Because first of all, I’m a designer in my heart, if not in my day job. But I’ve seen so many projects, dashboard and analytic projects, go awry, just by poor expression.

If you’re capturing this information, and you’re looking at things but you’re not able to share it or express it in a way that other people on your team can align with and understand, that’s also a liability. So, here’s to the power of good design. I think that makes the boat go faster. Do you?

George Weiner: Amen. The proper direction and expression of information is huge, especially if you think about the different types of learners there are out there. The variety then speaks to it. So I’ve got a fun question for you, actually, Sarah. What would you say is the most impactful dashboard, with regard to changing humans’ behavior, currently, in the world?

Sarah Durham: Hmm.

George Weiner: Cue the Jeopardy music.

Sarah Durham: In the world? I don’t know, George. What is it?

George Weiner: Think about the last time you were driving a car. How fast were you going? How fast should you have been going? When you looked down at the car dashboard, those are the numbers you need to drive down the road. If you’re doing 55 in a 54, you know you’re going too fast for that. And if your fuel tank is on empty, you’re like, “I am not going to make it to Grandma’s house, and that’s sad.”

So what are the elements of design, what are the elements of focus that you can glean from this dashboard that has the impact on humans, of driving vehicles? And so, you’re like, “Wait a minute. There are elements, like deltas, all right?” If I give you the number seven, are you happy or sad right now? She seems happy!

Sarah Durham: Well, if it’s a net promoter score, I’m not that happy.

George Weiner: Right. If the goal was 10, and you’re like, “Well, that’s no good. That’s a gentleman’s C.” So we need the delta. Humans are going to respond to the delta up or down, and as amateur data analysts, you should be inquisitive of any surprise, either positive or negative of that. And a lot of times, when we get the surprise—“We exceeded our goals by 50%, let’s keep going off in the dark.”—you should be just as concerned about the delta up, as delta down, because your estimate and your expectation of it was so far off, that you should understand what those drivers are.

Sarah Durham: So, can you give us an example of what the delta would be or what would make the boat go faster with a couple of organizations so that our listeners can kind of bring this into their world a little bit more tangibly?

George Weiner: Sure. So, let’s talk through some common fundraising elements. Numbers that I need to know are annual growth year-over-year, but then I need to know average donor size, and then I need that segmented on over/under $5,000 donors. I want to understand the cycle time of when you first get emails into your system, and when they are getting that first gift.

So that’s your “cycle time,” and you should be landing between nine and 18 months in there, and if you’re over- or under-indexing on that, I’m like, “What are they doing right or wrong with regard to that?” I also want to see the lifetime donor value. So you’re probably, over a course of five years, based on stats, churning through your entire donor base list. So how do you calculate that?

Well, can I tell if I get a $100 gift that’s going to factor around 3X, so every donor I get is actually worth $300 over the course of, say, three to five years. Now, I can come back to a cost of acquisition. So, as I rattle through this, and sweat pours down your forehead, don’t. Because the numbers are there.

Sarah Durham: Well, and also, a lot of the things you’re referencing, I think, very eloquently draw back to nonprofit sector fundraising best practices. There’s a lot of data in the sector about lifetime value, about donor retention, so you can benchmark your organization’s performance, not only against your own past performance, but against the industry, or other organizations in your space, which is a really nice way to see.

Often times, we hear organizations who are very worried about how they’re doing. But they’re looking at it in a vacuum, and when you actually compare their results to industry, you see that they’re doing great, just, their expectations were perhaps misaligned with reality of what happens. How many people will actually take action, for instance?

I’m also curious to dig briefly into Google Analytics, and what your take is on Google Analytics. If a nonprofit communicator sitting there looking at that dashboard in Google Analytics—which, there’s some templated things you can pull up there—would you encourage them to start with that? Where should a small shop invest their energy with Google Analytics?

George Weiner: Yeah, the Google Analytics—free web tracking software,—allows you to put code across your site and then see the where, who, how, what of pages they went to, time that was spent. Then you can set up specialty goals, such as, let’s say, donates. Like, donations that you want to track.

Email acquisition as well is another big one. We like to see it configured. So out of the box, it is a little annoying, because you’re like, “Why does it matter?” And it’s not until you kind of get in there and configure it, and this is an important starting point. As a nonprofit communicator, you have to understand who is hearing, and who’s actually doing the actions on your site, that all of your work is being poured into.

Like, you’re about to stop listening to this and go onto one of those computers and pour your time and energy into messaging pieces like that. To not see the net result of that on your site in terms of traffic is a lost opportunity. And you don’t get retroactive data if you haven’t set these things up.

So, making sure it’s installed, getting some of those— we have a nonprofit starter bundle kit for dashboards that you can Google and find. And get those set up, begin to ask questions, learn, find the insights, and then act on them.

Things to pay attention to are looking at year-over-year, month versus month, and month versus last year. Remember that delta? What happens inside of Google Analytics is it gives you a rolling 30 days. You look at a number, like seven, and you’re like, “Is that a good thing or bad thing? I wanna see things like organic traffic increasing, year-over-year.

Those are people typing things into searches, such as, “How do I become an organ donor?” You want to know what happens if you are donating to Life America, the largest organ donation network in the country. So we need to see that traffic increasing if we’re creating new content, looking for opportunities. And that’s just one start.

The other, KPI I love to see—key performance indicator—on a website is emails acquired. So what is that conversion rate? Are you over or under 1%? Which pages are people particularly interested in your work? Because every email you get is another person who has given you the permission to communicate to them. And that is a powerful thing.

Sarah Durham: Absolutely, and we often talk about in terms of growing your ladder of engagements, so list building and conversions are a key dashboard metric. How are people entering and converting on your site?

So, before we wrap up, one final question. What tips would you have for a nonprofit communicator or a nonprofit leader who really hasn’t scratched the surface in terms of creating a culture that is data-informed, or data-driven, around their communications? Where should they start?

George Weiner: Getting started begins with one question I always love to pose: “Why do you have a website?”

Have that conversation with your different teams and be shocked, surprised, thrilled, hopefully, maybe, to see what those answers are. And then you come back to, what questions do you have about your performance?

One of the things, as we work with more and more nonprofits, we actually developed the tool that sits on top of Google Analytics, called Lighthouse, that lets you see the exact behavior of emails on your website, inside of the user ID tracking, so you can see the past two years of behavior when somebody signs up on an email.

Now, suddenly, the fundraising team will be like, “I wanna know what Sarah did, because she’s an awesome donor in our community.” They go on, and then they can see that history.

So, again, when you make it practical to the job that people are doing inside of your organization in those verticals and saying, “Here’s how data can support and inform your work to make the boat go faster.”

Sarah Durham: Great. George, how can people find you in Whole Whale?

George Weiner:, and we also have a podcast,

Sarah Durham: All right.

George Weiner: We would love to hear from you.

Sarah Durham: Thanks for joining me today.