Big Data is a Big Deal


If you haven’t heard about Big Data by now, your marketing and IT pros probably have. For now, it’s still a playground for large companies with deep pockets, but it eventually will scale down to a more accessible version. It behooves us to become acquainted with it now.

Big Data is an amorphous concept. It encompasses the combined effect of

  • the enormous amount of data being generated and stored around the planet,
  • the speed at which this is happening, and
  • the dispersion of this data across myriad systems and data structures.

There’s so much information out there, it just seems self-evident that it could be useful – if it can be tamed.

Everyone in Advancement uses data of some kind, whether stored in an alumni or donor database or in your own contact software. And if you need more, you can buy it – everything from age to marital status to income to mail order prescription propensity, if you’re interested in such things. And now, Acxiom can sort a database into 50 segments based on online behavior. Its new InfoBase-X Social product can provide social network information, such as sites used, number of “friends” and last reported activity.

How Big is Big?

Big Data goes well beyond this, because it includes everything that everyone is doing and saying that is captured digitally.

It includes opinions about restaurants and dishwasher detergent, conversations at happy hours and baby showers, who one’s friends and ex-friends are, dialogues about the merits of the local school tax levy and efforts to recruit volunteers for animal rescue groups. Every day, more information is created about where people are, where they’re going and what they’re doing. Vacations, birthday parties, church mission trips, Thanksgiving dinners, political rallies and arts festivals – the photos, the posts and the tweets – they’re all out there somewhere on massive databases (hopefully protected by state-of-the-art encryption, or a dragon).

A seminal event in early 2012 was Oracle’s rollout of its Big Data Appliance, the first enterprise-scale, combined hardware-software solution for crunching lots of data from multiple databases and deriving at least semi-meaningful information from them. The predictable effect has been wide-ranging speculation about the direction of Big Data and what its true value is. Just like when we first heard about the Internet and then Email and then Google and then Facebook and then – well, you get the idea.

Larry Dignan, editor of ZDNet, says 2013 will be the year of Big Data’s deployment in enterprise systems, with a “success story” in every vertical (Big Data: How the Revolution May Play Out). Before 2015, he says, consumer-facing companies will be the leading users of Big Data.

A framework for thinking about Big Data in Advancement

And that’s why it matters to Advancement professionals – the use of Big Data by retailers will raise consumer expectations yet again. Those consumers are your prospects.

Clearly, no institution of higher education is prepared to invest in the cutting edge of Big Data, nor should it. Full-scale Big Data is expensive and untested, and more than we need anyway. Instead, let’s keep our eyes open for the right opportunity and be prepared when it arrives – an affordable spinoff could be right around the corner.

The key to being prepared is having a good understanding of what constitutes relevant information and knowing how we intend to use it to engage our constituencies.

First, let’s not waste energy where it’s not needed. We have a group of people we already know well and whose loyalty is assured, as long as we treat them right. The utility of Big Data is in exploring the unknown, not the known. Longtime annual fund donors, alumni association members, major gift prospects, charitable remainder trust donors – let’s continue to build relationships with these people as we always have.

Second, brainstorm what you want to know about those not yet in your inner circle. Consider the possibility that an engineering graduate who has never given may care about something other than engineering. Just because she lives in Chicago doesn’t necessarily mean she’s eager to get together with other Chicago grads. And she hates football. So what else about her could help you build a relationship, if you knew what it was?

And third, inventory the specific things your institution does that need support. It could be research into a particular disease, infrastructure support in developing nations, or systems design for upcoming space missions. Create a process for continuously updating this inventory.

The goal is to match what you know about someone to the relevant activity at your institution and use that to bring him or her into the fold.

Big Data is an IT challenge – and a communication challenge

Always, the issue with data is how to use it. It is essential to develop communication strategies alongside the data analysis and interpretation efforts. Begin now to enlist both in your cause – you are likely to find your communicators even more enthused that you expect, especially if they have new ways to connect to their audience.

Both camps should be intrigued by what will be happening in the retail space during the next few years. Just look at how successfully Amazon and Zappos have used data to build loyal customer followings – and the only data they’re working with so far is the data they gather directly from their own interactions with customers. One can only imagine what they’ll do when they find out that people who download music by Needtobreathe and Sea Wolf also tweet about the local sushi wherever they travel and get regular kudos from their friends for stocking Woodford Reserve bourbon in their tailgate cooler.

Ask your IT gurus and marketing leadership to keep an eye on these developments. It will give them a great start in thinking about how to use Big Data in the service of your institution.

Big Data is a Big Deal

Humans now upload 150 hours of video to YouTube every 2 minutes, send 340 million tweets a day and “like” 2.7 billion Facebook posts and pages every 24 hours.

Short of a cataclysm, these numbers will continue to grow. And new kinds of information we can’t even imagine will enter the swirling Big Data vortex. The train is leaving the station, and there’s no stopping it.

A View from the Belly of the Beast: Lessons Learned from the Penn State Crisis

Arguably the greatest challenge faced by an academic institution, the Jerry Sandusky arrest has brought negative attention to Penn State University, and left colleges and universities everywhere wondering how they would handle a crisis of similar magnitude. Although the situation is far from over, there are positive lessons to be learned from the Penn State Alumni Association.

A gain in members, revenue and trust

At a time when it may be expected that the country’s largest dues-paying alumni association would lose members and revenue, the Penn State Alumni Association experienced growth. In comparison to the year prior to the crisis, membership increased 2.4 percent, dues revenue increased 2.7 percent, and the Sustaining Life Member Program increased 21.9 percent. In addition, recent member surveys reflect a relatively high level of trust for the organization, compared with the university’s governing board and administration.

In the beginning: Listening

Executive Director Roger Williams,  Penn State Alumni Association

Executive Director Roger Williams, Penn State Alumni Association

“At first there was an onslaught of phone calls and emails from members,” said Roger Williams, D.Ed., executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association.

Williams, a three-time alumnus of the university, led the association’s efforts to answer more than 4,000 emails, calls, letters and social-media postings. A strategic hands-off approach to social media encouraged alumni to freely express their opinions. Williams said that listening to members, including responding to letters and emails, was especially important when the Penn State Board of Trustees was not responding to communication from alumni.

“We needed to be a port of entry for alumni…we needed to hear their comments,” he said.

All alumni communication was immediately forwarded to the Board of Trustees and to Penn State Administration, but Williams said that it unfortunately took three weeks before an actual meeting occurred between University Relations and the Alumni Association.

A letter to members

In the meanwhile, Williams did not hesitate to communicate directly with the Alumni membership, and he wanted to be straightforward.

“Above all, I wanted to be sure we sustained and protected our own credibility…the trust of our alumni…and we wanted to tell it like it is,” Williams said.

No sugar coating

Considering that many alumni were, and still are, understandably angry and resentful of the negative publicly directed at their school, how did the Penn State Alumni Association accomplish such increases? The answer to this question lies with the leadership and direction of the Penn State Alumni Association. From the start, the association insisted on honest, open and non-sugar-coated communication, as part of an extensive crisis-management plan.

The crisis-management plan

While responding to members during the first three months of the crisis, Williams and his staff created an extensive long-term crisis management strategy. The ongoing plan includes six areas of focus: (1) Fulfill the Association’s mission and sustain its credibility, (2) Facilitate the expression of alumni opinion, (3) Demonstrate concern for the victims and support solutions to the problem of child sexual abuse, (4) Become part of the larger institutional strategy/response, (5) Generate communications designed to address the issue head on and forthrightly, and (6) Monitor impacts and adjust programs as necessary.

Implementing the plan

The association addressed focus areas No. 1 (sustaining the association’s credibility), No. 2 (facilitating alumni opinion), No. 4 (being part of the larger institutional response) and No. 5 (addressing the issues forthrightly) by listening to members’ concerns and passing along information to Penn State Administration. A variety of additional activities such as town hall meetings expanded these efforts.

The association addressed focus area No. 3 (victim concern) by helping promote a campaign, “Proud to be a Penn Stater.” Spearheaded by an alumnus, the effort raised more than $500,000 for the national organization, Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

The January-February 2012 edition of the bimonthly “Penn Stater” alumni magazine undoubtedly supported focus area No. 5 (addressing the issue forthrightly) by featuring a dark cover that showed the letters of the title “Penn Stater” as having fallen to the bottom of the cover. Although controversial, Williams does not apologize for the cover or the magazine’s honest contents.

The dark, award-winning ‘The PennStater’ cover (January-February 2012) and the September-October 2012 edition that looks to the future.

The dark, award-winning ‘The PennStater’ cover (January-February 2012) and the September-October 2012 edition that looks to the future.

“We won the Grand Gold Award from CASE for that cover, and it exemplified a kind of no-holds-barred communication we were striving for,” Williams said.

A multitude of other events and activities were included in the strategic multi-month crisis communication plan, and additional efforts are ongoing.

The metrics

Williams is proud of the Penn State Alumni Association’s efforts, of which metrics illustrate success.

The association’s 2012 survey asked members questions including the extent to which they trust individual groups to provide information about Penn State. Fifty-seven percent ranked the Alumni Association in the 8-10 category (0=do not trust; 10= complete trust), while Penn State Administration received 23 percent, and Penn State Trustees just 13 percent.

A 2012 CASE magazine readership survey also showed positive scores for the Alumni Association. Eighty-eight percent ranked “The Penn Stater” as “consistently accurate” or “generally accurate,” a seven-point increase compared with the previous survey’s 81 percent in 2009, and 21 points higher than the national average of 67 percent. For the category of “usually positive only” (the lower the score, the better), the magazine received a five percent, less than half of its previous 12-percent score in 2009, and one-third of the national average of 18 percent.

“I think in many ways it (the crisis) has made us stronger,” Williams said.


By Susan Stewart

Charting a Bold New Course for the Georgia State University (GSU) Alumni Association: A Case Study in Strategic Planning

Most alumni organizations today recognize that in order to meet their long-term goals and objectives in an effective and efficient way, they must have a plan to follow—a map to lead them to their desired destination. Whether an association is considering development of their first strategic plan like GSU was, or is a veteran of several completed plans, the process can be a daunting one.

Brad Ferrer
2009-2012 President, GSU Alumni Association
Brad is immediate past president of the GSU Alumni Association, and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration at Cable News Network. Mr. Ferrer led the association during the development of the GSU Alumni Association strategic plan.

Christina Million
Exectuive Director, GSU Alumni Association
Christina serves as the Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations and Executive Director of the GSU Alumni Association.

Note: Mr. Ferrer, Ms. Million, and Dr. Lee Patouillet  of Patouillet Consulting LLC are presenting a session on the GSU Alumni Association Strategic Planning Process: Challenges and Opportunities at the CASE III Conference—Atlanta, GA in February, 2013.

Patouillet Consulting LLC assisted Georgia State University in developing its newly implemented strategic plan. Christina Million (CM) and Brad Ferrer (BF) answer questions about the plan and the process.

1.    Why did you do a strategic plan for the Georgia State University Alumni Association?

BF: We wanted to tie our planning efforts to the GSU Strategic Plan; so once the school’s plan was ratified by the University Senate during early 2011, we began our planning efforts so we could align our mission, values and vision with the university’s strategic plan.

CM: Since the GSU Alumni Association had never completed a strategic plan, it was perfect timing to develop one to provide direction for the entire organization and to support the university’s goals.

2.    What role did your consultant play in assisting you in developing the plan?

CM: PCLLC was integral to the process. Lee helped direct us and kept us focused on the common goal. It is easy to get lost in details and forget the big picture, and he was able to keep everything on track. He provided great examples and materials to spark conversation and discussion. Also, his expertise was invaluable, and he provided great insight in the most effective way to present ourselves and the completed plan. Lee made my job so much easier, and I am thankful for all his guidance from start to finish.

BF: Our consultant was a key facilitator who had a broad range of very relevant experience. His experience was invaluable as options were considered and context for decision-making was needed.

 3.    What kind of process did you use to develop your plan?

CM: We wanted a lot of input from the association’s key stakeholders, so they would be invested in the plan. We started with a retreat for the full board, and then worked with a strategic planning committee within the board. The University President and the VP for Development and Alumni Affairs provided input to make sure it would correlate well with the university. The timing was great, and it lent plenty of opportunity for input.

BF: It was important to build in sufficient time to allow for data-gathering, debate and discussion, and follow-up research in order to have a more fully supported final proposal.

4. How did you involve the staff and board in this process?

BF: We depended upon the staff to complete much of the detailed work, including discussion preparation, research, and initial proposals—all of which facilitated board discussion. The board was engaged throughout the process to provide guidance to the staff, consider the initial staff proposals, recommend their own proposals, and ultimately approve the work product from each phase.

5. How did your plan relate to the university’s goals and objectives?

CM:  It relates closely to the university’s goals and objectives, which was the point of the entire process. The university is the reason we exist, so we should all be working for common goals and objectives. Our plan represents that well, and we can definitely benchmark plan to plan to see how we are succeeding.

6. How did you involve the alumni population in general in this process?

CM: As part of the strategic planning process, we conducted the first comprehensive alumni survey in the history of the university. We did separate surveys to university alumni and to faculty/staff alumni. We had 4556 responses, which was over 12% for the two groups. We were very pleased with the phenomenal response rate. We got great information that can be used for programming and events, and it has already been incorporated in a number of things we are doing. By listening to our alumni, we can determine what we really need to be striving to do in order to be good stewards of our alumni base.

7. What were some of your key findings from your alumni survey?

BF: We received very helpful guidance on alumni priorities, which were segregated by key demographics, and also on alumni attitudes towards GSU, which should prove helpful in the development effort.

CM: Specific findings included:

  • Equity of degree is a core driver for alumni.
  • Career services are important to our alumni.
  • Targeted communications focusing on successful outcomes are needed.
  • We must continue to focus on improved public opinion of GSU and the association as source of information about GSU.
  • We should build campus coalitions around alumni by sharing and discussing data.

8.   What were some of the benefits of developing this plan?

BF: This plan gives the GSU Alumni Association specific focus when establishing goals, it aligns the association’s plan with the larger university plan which is essential to success, and it helped unify the board in reaching consensus regarding plan specifics.

9.   What were some of the challenges in creating your plan and how did you address them?

CM: It is difficult to gain consensus on the importance of an organization from a large number of people. There were many different points of view regarding why the association exists and how it should operate in serving the alumni of GSU. The first few meetings were necessary to craft the message, and then the rest of the plan could follow. Once there was consensus on the actual message of the organization, it was easier to understand what to highlight in the plan.

10. What advice would you have for others contemplating the development of a strategic plan for their alumni association?                                            

BF: It is essential to tie this planning process to the university’s planning process, to fully engage the board in the development of the plan, and to also involve the alumni population in the plan.

CM: When people have been heard in the process, they are much more likely to believe in the plan, take ownership of it, and live by it. The strategic planning process was also of great benefit to the alumni staff because they worked toward essential organizational goals, and now they will be able to see the results and track our progress.

10 Essentials for Educational Institutions and Community-Based Nonprofit Organizations

Frances Hesselbein, President and CEO of the Leader to Leader Institute and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, reminds us of the importance of developing a common language leading to a common vision resulting in common ground. An analysis of the desired outcomes shared by educational institutions and community-based nonprofit organizations reveals that there are many similarities between these two parts of the social sector. Both types of organizations are seeking:

1.    Additional Revenue– As government funding is declining and organizations are facing challenging economic times, there is a need to generate revenue in new and creative ways. Organizations must be more dependent on philanthropic support if they are to advance their respective missions.

2.    Effective Strategic Planning– Developing a solid strategic plan focused on the organization’s mission, values, vision, strategic directions and measurable goals is one of the proven strategies to move an organization from good to great. Noted thought leader Jim Collins states, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.”

3.    Informed and Passionate Advocates– In today’s high tech world, there is still nothing more powerful than an individual person becoming an informed and passionate advocate for their given cause. For some organizations, it entails an alumnus talking with a legislator about the quality education he or she received and the importance of federal or state support to the educational enterprise. In other cases, it might be a mom or dad telling neighbors about a wonderful after school program for children with special needs. Both advocates speak with passion and give a voice to that particular cause.

4.    Committed and Effective Board Members Educational and nonprofit boards are needed to provide key deliverables such as oversight, counsel, expertise, resources and ideas. Effective boards continually assess how well the organization is carrying out its mission, and they consider what other groups are doing in an effort to adopt and adapt new ideas as appropriate. High performing boards create a culture of open inquiry. Historically, we have observed that the most effective boards are those which ask the “tough questions” in a respectful manner, while not being complacent with the status quo.

5.    Dedicated Volunteers- It is inconceivable to think of how educational institutions and nonprofit organizations would function without a cadre of dedicated volunteers. Volunteers are the lifeblood of both types of organizations. They provide the time and talent needed to make these operations work. Did you ever calculate the billable hours of your volunteers’ time associated with a given event or board meeting? It tends to be a staggering number, and should remind us to be respectful of their time, while always extending a sincere thank you for their help.

6.    Opportunities to Tell Their Story- With increasing use of social media, organizations are seeking new ways to capitalize on these communication channels to tell their stories. It often comes down to how well organizations can demonstrate that they are truly making a difference and engaging their constituents. It is interesting to compare the number of people who visit an organization’s website or the activity level on a group’s Facebook or LinkedIn pages with the number who attend particular programs, and then analyze the amount of resources the organization dedicates to each effort. This calls into question whether we need to rethink our definition of engagement and redeploy our resources accordingly.

7.    Greater focus on Metrics- Metrics is one of those hot concepts like dashboards, which many education and nonprofit leaders are discussing today. How do we know our organizations are advancing our missions without some sense of measurement? Many organizations are struggling to identify what should be measured, exploring ways to track these metrics and then attempting to assess their impact. Dashboards present a quick “snapshot” regarding how the organization is doing over a given length of time, based upon a series of agreed upon metrics. We have collected a number of excellent examples of different kinds of dashboards used by various organizations and would be glad to share them with you if this would be helpful.

8.    Engaged Constituents- Research from the Independent Sector along with research we conducted in higher education clearly reveals a very strong correlation between engagement and investment. This investment comes in the form of giving of one’s time, talent and/or treasure. A study at a major research university revealed that overall 15 % of the alumni gave in FY’10 compared to 30- 79% giving among different cohorts we identified. Engagement clearly leads to investment.

9.    Valued Partners- In this era of having to do more with less, a key strategy is to forge effective and valued partnerships that play to the strengths of all parties involved. When is the last time your organization completed an environmental scan to see which groups might be natural partners?

10. Communities of Practice: There is a real need to continue to learn from similar organizations, and one such strategy to accomplish this objective is to be part of a community of practice. If you don’t enjoy this kind of support, consider doing a Google search, checking your LinkedIn connections or contacting your professional association to find out who might be doing similar work. Given the power of the web, online communication allows for communities of practice to be global in participation yet targeted in focus.

As we work to help advance the mission of both educational institutions and nonprofit organizations, we hope you find comfort in knowing that various enterprises within the social sector have much in common, and can learn a great deal from each other.

I welcome you to post your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thank you for all you do to advance the social sector.

Post Updated on May 20, 2011