The Importance of "Big Data" in Fundraising for the Arts

The term “big data” may be the buzz word of the moment (or at least for the past year),  but what does it really mean for fundraisers? And how can we use it effectively knowing that our ultimate goal is to not only engage our constituents but get them to contribute?

Thanks to the internet, we’re all used to customized experiences – just look at Google, Facebook, and Amazon for example. We’ve become accustomed to getting personalized suggestions of what to buy, what to watch, or what to read all built on data or cookies placed on our computers, mobile devices, or tablets. It doesn’t even seem “big brother” anymore – it’s become the norm. Unfortunately, most nonprofit organizations – particularly arts and cultural institutions – aren’t providing this same experience to visitors, members, or donors.

For a while now, The Dallas Museum of Art has been offering free memberships in return for capturing a significant amount of data on their constituents. With over 50,000 free members, or DMA Friends, that’s a lot of data. A recent Bloomberg Business Week article highlighted that the program has, so far, delivered 2 million records of how visitors have used the museum. Members are asked to scan their cards whenever they enter galleries, attend a program or event, or even to identify artworks. They are then given points that can be redeemed for rewards, such as special programs or tickets.

While obviously successful in engaging new audiences, the concept of free membership may make many a membership or development director shudder. I understand the concern and agree that it may be difficult to convert some of these “free” members to become donors or contributing members. One must do a cost-benefit analysis as to whether the captured data will be utilized in a way that makes up for the lost membership revenue. In the case of the DMA, director Maxwell Anderson cites that the free membership program has enabled the museum to reach and engage new audiences, such as those in low-income areas, and in turn, this has resulted in several major gifts to the museum.

Additionally, more visitors to your institution can translate into more revenue in other areas, such as retail stores and parking. If you view the concept as a rewards program (à la Starbucks or frequent flier programs) and as a way to engage visitors who may not have become members anyways, it may provide you with an opportunity to learn more and further cultivate them.

In my last blog post from a few months ago, I talked about the importance of cultivating members and donors at all levels. Certainly the data collected from a rewards program like DMA’s would allow fundraisers to better tailor their communications and solicitations to their members and donors. For example, if you know that someone visits every month but has yet to contribute or join the museum, couldn’t you tailor a special offer just for them focusing on the benefit of free admission? Or give them a coupon for a free coffee at the museum café the next time they visit as a thank you.

More data also allows you to better segment and target your file in terms of solicitations. Capturing more information on your visitors, members and donors will shed light on particular trends in donor behavior and allow you to identify those who are more likely to upgrade, renew or give additional gifts. For example, visitation may have a direct correlation with renewals, or participation in programs and events may be an indicator for major gift prospects.

Admittedly, the type of program that the Dallas Museum of Art has set up may not be possible for everyone, but there are other ways to capture and use data to further target and segment your visitors, ticket buyers, members, and donors. A lot of it may already exist within your database systems – if you’re scanning membership cards when someone visits or attends an event, if you’re capturing information whenever someone makes a purchase online or in the store or café. Granted, many of these systems may not sync with each other, but there are workarounds and ways to still get at the data if it exists.

The bottom line: knowing more about your constituents – whether they are visitors, “free members”, members, or donors can only help as you seek to further engage and provide that personalized experience. And ultimately it may unearth “diamonds in the rough” and lead or identify new prospects for that next major gift.

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…