IT and Research Partnerships: Enhancing Our Data Culture – Part 2

A conversation with Ike Pahm, IT systems manager, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Foundation, and Jeffrey A. (Jeff) Walker, PhD, director of Research, UWM Development and Alumni Relations Office

View part one of the IT and Research Partnerships Q&A here.

In part one of the IT and Research Partnerships Q&A, UWM’s Ike Pahm and Jeff Walker discussed the collaborative efforts of the IT and Research teams that led to a historic campaign and fiscal year for the university. Here in part two, Pahm and Walker discuss the impact of data culture, the next UWM campaign and advice for peers.

JW: Throughout the past couple of years at the Development and Alumni Relations Office and the UWM Foundation, the pace of our overall data culture evolution has accelerated significantly. How would you describe where we started, where we're at now and where we're headed?

IP: In the past couple of years, we have shown considerable improvement in our data utilization. There is no doubt that our data allowed us to close the campaign so successfully. However, as far as our data culture is concerned, there is still much room for improvement.

As far as I can recall, our efforts to cultivate more data-centric operations go back about seven years when IT, Research and Development created a plan to improve/streamline our core processes. We started with improvements that would be quick, easy and high-impact, and then worked our way to those processes that would take longer and might require additional data. As a result of this exercise, a more data-focused collaboration started to develop between the various stakeholders of the organization.

Two immediate offshoots were streamlining our reporting processes and introducing simple data visualization tools. Self-service reporting became available, mainly in the form of standard reports based on pre-determined organizational requirements ― in other words, our reporting processes became more centralized and unified. For IT, our main focus was designing and maintaining these standard reports rather than creating highly fragmented sets of reports that catered to individual users’ preferences. As a result, users could quickly run reports and had greater access to data and information. With the introduction of Power BI (PBI), users have the ability to run reports any time. They also have access to dashboards and other enhanced visualization tools that allow them to draw insights easily and make more data-informed decisions.

The recent adoption of data analytics is another step forward in our PBI reporting. Our data analytics provide predictive scores for principal, major, planned and annual giving, and these are very useful for managers and frontline fundraisers as they design their prospect management portfolios. With all of these tools collectively becoming an integral part of our operations, a more data-savvy culture will be inevitable.

JW: As you reflect on your role in this evolution, what are you proudest of?

IP: First and foremost is our constant effort to make data accurate and consistent. The effectiveness of any data-driven environment depends primarily on the quality of its data and how it is managed and governed. Second is the skillset that IT has developed over time — making data essential and a source of actionable insight through PBI and analytics. Third is the ability to integrate data from external sources into our internal data pool, which has proven to be very valuable in formulating fundraising strategies.

JW: As UWM prepares for its next campaign, what big-picture goals need to be met?

IP: From a technological perspective, a more robust, sophisticated and flexible constituent relationship management (CRM) system will be key for the next campaign and for our ongoing digital transformation. The duality of new technology and changing donor demographics has fundamentally altered the playing field for donor relations and how alumni engage with their institutions. The emergence of new digital platforms leads to new channels of giving and reveals important differences within our constituency — baby boomers, Gen X or millennials. How we can best leverage digital progress and effectively use new data in our advancement decisions and operations will play a critical role in alumni engagement and fundraising outcomes.

JW: How can IT and Research build on our existing partnership, to help in achieving these goals?

IP: IT and Research should continue to highlight new and innovative ways to utilize our data. Both teams must identify which new data streams can be integrated into the existing data ecosystem and how to maximize donor potentials. Both teams should assist managers and frontline fundraisers in finding ways to minimize the cost of fundraising by targeting those donor segments and cohorts who are most likely to give.

JW: What practical advice would you give to our peers at smaller or "less-data-culture-evolved" philanthropic organizations? Where should they start? What are the vital first few steps?

IP: The evolution of a data-driven culture must start with a collective buy-in from all stakeholders in your organization. Senior leaders must recognize the importance of embracing data and must be able to articulate its role in fulfilling the mission, meeting individual goals, designing development plans and building operational strategies.

The next key step is to understand the existing data ecosystem in your organization. A data ecosystem is a collection of your data infrastructure, which includes what types of data you maintain, where they are stored, and what systems and applications they are used for. The types of data that are maintained and how they are utilized are primarily driven by your organization’s operational and management needs.

Fostering data culture is a process that will require participation at every level. Regular and continuous training is, therefore, another key component. Staff will have to be trained to understand:

  • What counts as relevant data
  • Data storage protocols
  • How data can be accessed through reports and analytical tools
  • How to derive actionable insights
  • Associated performance metrics

Staff should also be active participants in formulating best practices and in developing ways to track and maintain data, so accuracy and consistency are kept at a high level.

Cultivating data culture will happen gradually over time. Like any cultural change, it will entail changes in attitudes and perceptions, competency levels, processes and resource allocation. But, once established, data-driven decision-making will help your organization realize its goals more efficiently and more effectively. 

JW: What have you learned from our Database Management Committee (DMC), our Analytics/Data Culture work-group and our six Shaping Our Future Activity teams that might be of greatest interest to these same early-stage peers?

IP: The DMC has been and continues to be a principal catalyst for our data culture change. The DMC, as I recall, started as a “data hygiene” work group between IT and Development. The main charge was troubleshooting data consistency and accuracy in the CRM. Over time, its role has evolved into both a data governance and management body. As a governing body, the DMC sets the organizational policies, rules and processes of data collection, storage, access or use, security or protection, archiving, and retention and destruction. The specific implementation of these policies and rules is the management role of the DMC. Moreover, the DMC has broadened its scope from mainly managing existing data to bringing in critical external data, which has enriched the organization's overall data ecosystem. From an organizational perspective, the DMC has solidified our data foundation and has empowered users at all levels to leverage the data as a strategic resource in every aspect of our fundraising.

The Analytics/Data Culture work-group springs directly from the work of the DMC but is more focused on enhancing our data culture. It fosters the use of our new analytics screening results and it strengthens users’ skillsets via education about PBI reporting and best practices.

Our post-campaign process, Shaping Our Future Activity, has included Development, Alumni Relations and Foundation staff. It is an affirmation that broad participation is a crucial step for achieving greater outcomes in our fundraising. More specifically, it is creating the road map that will prepare us for the next campaign. We are studying what we learned from the campaign and identifying the most critical missing pieces that we need to move forward.

JW: Imagine where we'll be in five years, in terms of data culture. What do you see?

IP: Five years from now I would like us to be ready to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) in our data ecosystem. In a data-driven environment, however, a successful AI integration can only be possible if we can combine it with the right data and insightful analytics and reporting. Data can provide deeper insights into our donors’ behavior and a richer understanding of what really drives them to give to UWM. Data can provide insights into the success of our engagement and fundraising. Thus, with good data analytics and reporting, AI can be very useful in managing those routine, repetitive tasks that reinforce relationships with current and potential donors. For managers and frontline fundraisers, AI can be a useful tool that almost automatically builds portfolios full of prospects who have the highest propensity to give.

On the IT side, AI-driven applications will have a real impact on maintaining high-quality data. It can automate data flows from external lakes and streams into the internal data ecosystem. As I mentioned earlier, like any ecosystem, our data ecosystem will evolve and grow even more vigorously with the integration of AI in our data processes. Personally and professionally, attaining a high level of automation in our back-end data processes, having the ability to use even more predictive tools and offering colleagues more AI-driven, action-oriented fundraising solutions would be more than fulfilling.

JW: We’ve covered a lot of UWM history, hopefully in a way that will help and inspire our readers. Thank you so much for taking the time.

IP: Thank you, too. I’ve really enjoyed sharing this story of how far we’ve come.

Learn more about the authors featured in this article on the Connections Thought Leadership Page .

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