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A Chat With Melissa Brown, Manager of the Nonprofit Research Collaborative (NRC)

September 5, 2017

Melissa BrownWhat You Can Learn from the Nonprofit Research Collaborative

AFP talks with Melissa Brown, manager of the Nonprofit Research Collaborative (NRC), about what the profession is learning from the NRC and why you (yes, YOU!) should be taking the current NRC survey.

What’s your professional position now, and what are your responsibilities?  

I serve as the manager of the Nonprofit Research Collaborative (NRC), which means I help convene the different organizations that make up our group, send out communications, analyze the data and prepare the reports. I also work with several other organizations with different types of surveys and communications, and teach at The Fundraising School in Indianapolis. Lately, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with four different AFP chapters about the NRC and our surveys.

What is the NRC?

The NRC is a coalition of organizations in the sector that come together to develop and conduct surveys twice a year about fundraising and the charitable sector. Currently the NRC is composed of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Association of Philanthropic Counsel, CFRE International, Giving USA Foundation, the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners and TopNonprofits.

In every survey, we ask respondents to compare their organization’s fundraising with the previous year. Did it go up, down or was it about the same? We ask about different types of fundraising, from direct mail and planned gifts to board solicitations and email and text giving. In addition, each survey typically has a special section where we address different issues, ranging from board giving to the prevalence of planned giving programs to the impact of the recent Presidential campaign on fundraising.

How did the NRC get started?

At a conference at the Aspen Institute, several of us were sitting around a coffee table talking about the different surveys that we did. There was a lightbulb moment where we all seemed to realize at once that we could get some amazing, even more accurate results—and not bother our members with quite so many survey requests—if we combined our resources and created a collaborative survey. And so, the Nonprofit Research Collaborative was born.

At the time, we were just coming out of the Great Recession, and nonprofits were coping with so many things that they didn’t have time to complete surveys. We realized that each organization was sending out surveys often with similar questions, and it would be better and easier for the sector to just work together.

What makes the NRC different from other surveys or studies like Giving USA?

When I think about what we do, I think about data triangulation. In data analysis, you want to triangulate your findings by comparing your results with others and see if you get substantially similar or different results. Fortunately, we already have two very good data sets in the sector.

Giving USA is a forecast model based on historical data and precedents. They look at all the information and then predict what is going to happen. They do great work—disclaimer: I used to work at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University—and they typically come within five percent of the actual figure, which is very close for that sort of massive undertaking.

Then there’s Blackbaud, which tracks a rolling average of gifts through its Giving Index. They break down their findings a little by subsector, which is helpful, and you can see the data change every month or so.

I like to think of the NRC Surveys as the third point of triangulation. We dive down and track a lot of different data, focusing on if an organization raised more money in one year compared to the previous year, and asking questions about different types of fundraising and how they work together.

So, each study focuses on different types of data, and it’s always great when they all move together—which they often do.

What in your opinion is the most critical part of the NRC?

I think it’s your ability to compare your fundraising results with other organizations of similar size or subsector. As I mentioned earlier, the NRC tracks so much different data. You can see how other organizations are finding success—or not—at something like email fundraising. Or see how typical it is for charities to have every board member support their organization.

I think fundraisers should also realize that parts of our surveys are evergreen and that the information is still timely. We’ve done special reports on board fundraising, what organizations are offering as donor incentives to give, gifts from different donor types by organizational size—there’s a lot of information that can be helpful. And we do have some infographics detailing some of these findings as well.

What key issues or challenges have you seen arising from the data in the NRC surveys?

Some of our findings have simply validated what many have always known. For example, size is probably the most important factor in determining fundraising success, and we see that in just about every survey that’s been produced by the NRC. It is VERY clear that if you have less than one full-time fundraiser, your organization simply isn’t going to raise enough money. I worry about economic change and if boards will cut development when they should be focusing more money on development staff in order to raise the money the organization needs.

I also keep seeing lots of charities working to emphasize technology, but we don’t see high-tech appeals showing up—yet—as major sources of funds. Technology can obviously be a help, and we need to keep up with how donors want to communicated, but fundraising is still all about relationship building. I get concerned that nonprofits, and especially board members, tend to see what’s “new and bright and shiny” and go after that instead of working on what’s continuing to drive results—the basics of fundraising.

What’s next for the NRC?

The current survey focuses on how charities are reaching out to different generations. We have questions concerning six different generations and what sorts of formats and vehicles charities are using to communicate with them. As far as I know, the NRC is the only survey looking at that sort of data.

We’re also looking to do more with our Canadian respondents and getting even more data from that country. We’re getting a fair number to look at overall data, but we need even more respondents to accurately drill down into different types of fundraising.

Why is it important to participate in the NRC Surveys?

So many reasons!  First, it’s free. It just requires a little bit of your time, but it’s a small contribution to the success of your organization and the profession.

Second, you get results immediately after you finish taking the survey, based on whomever has completed the questions at that time. The final reports that we release are also free.

Third, it’s critical to have benchmarks for yourself, for your team and for your board and entire organization. You can see what other organizations are doing and the kind of success they are having.

I often get emails from people who’ve just completed a survey and told me that the questions made them rethink what they were doing and gave them new perspective on their fundraising strategy. And that’s the sort of experience we want respondents to have.

And the latest NRC is open now?

Yes, the latest survey is now open. AFP members can go to the link below and get started. One lucky participant will win a year’s membership to AFP. The deadline for responding is Sept. 10 so you still have time!

NRC Survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NRC_AFP