Does data have to be BIG to be powerful?

Big Data

Spend a few minutes with Virginia Gray, the Director of Annual Giving at Golden Gate University (GGU), and you’ll have the answer: No. In fact, data of all varieties and magnitudes can be used to make strategic decisions that dramatically improve performance.

When Virginia was hired by GGU in late 2011, the university had a 3 percent alumni participation rate. By the close of fiscal year 2013, revenues from annual giving solicitations (telefundraising, direct mail and email) had increased 39 percent compared to fiscal year 2012, and the number of donors had increased by 15 percent. Through mid-May this year, annual giving revenues are up 11 percent over last year, and donors are up by 12 percent.

These increases are exceptional by any measure, and Virginia credits data, including market research results, as the driver of her team’s success.

In December 2011, Virginia enlisted Marts & Lundy’s analytics team to assist her in the quantitative analysis she felt was critical to turning around the downward trend in the university’s annual giving. Our work together included:

  • An analysis of fiscal year 2007-11 results to identify the underlying reasons behind performance declines, particularly donor retention and new donor acquisition.
  • Locating outside data sources that could help identify GGU’s best alumni prospects since most alumni were non donors.
  • An email market research survey to identify alumni’s underlying attitudes towards GGU and their reasons for or against giving.

We used the data to prioritize prospects and donors within each of three categories:

  • A – those who had given in the past five years, further ranked within the category based primarily on previous giving to GGU
  • B –those who had given in the past but had not given in the past five years, also ranked by frequency and size of gift, as well as internal and external data points
  • C- the non-donor pool, for which we relied on engagement with GGU and external data sources to help us understand their other charitable giving behaviors

The result was twofold: an effective segmentation strategy that was derived from extensive data modeling and targeted communications crafted from a research-based understanding of which messages would inspire giving.

The fact that the annual giving program continues to realize double-digit growth is more than a testament to the integrity of the data analysis – it is the result of Virginia’s expertise in implementing best practices that make the most of every data point she has.

Big data will increasingly play a role in analytics, but GGU is a shining example of how you can use accessible data to great effect.

If you’d like to know more about GGU’s annual giving program or our work together, please contact me at, or Virginia at

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