One Year Later — Launching the Fundraising Report Card!

Back in October of 2015 I wrote an article titled Notes From Creating a New Product. In that post I shared my excitement about beginning to work with Greg Warner, the CEO of MarketSmart on a new software. Today I’m even more excited to share an update on our progress.

If you’ve chatted with me in person, I’ve probably tried to explain to you what the Fundraising Report Card is. But, to be entirely honest, I most likely left you feeling confused — I struggle to describe what I’ve been working on for all these months. By writing it out here I hope that I’ll be a little more effective in sharing what exactly I’ve been up to.

What is it

The Fundraising Report Card is a business intelligence and data analysis tool. The Fundraising Report Card empowers nonprofits to make data-driven decisions.

Data-driven decision making is such a buzz phrase, so let’s breakdown what it really means. And, more importantly, what it implies in the context of fundraising at nonprofit organizations.

First though, I need to share a brief overview of how donations work.

When you donate $20 to Save the Children (or any nonprofit organization) 35% (sometimes more, sometimes less) of that money goes towards overhead expenses. Overhead expenses include paying for consultants, investing in infrastructure, and sending letters to you asking for more money. (Yes, it’s a tough reality, but your donations are part of what gets invested in the “fundraising budget”). In a perfect world all $20 of your donation would go straight to the children that need to be saved — but in reality there are operating costs that need to be paid.

Okay, with that in mind let me frame how important data-driven decision making really is.

Right now, in this very moment your favorite nonprofit is spending thousands and thousands of dollars on direct mail appeals to try and raise more funds from you. There is nothing wrong with that (although some people might argue otherwise), they need to raise money and they need to ask you (and others) to help. Fine.

Behind the scenes most nonprofits are relying on a consultant (or a consulting firm) to help them decide who to mail to and what to mail to them — should this letter with a picture of a starving kid go to this list of donors or that list? This makes sense, right?

Like any good business the nonprofit wants a sound strategy before taking any action. Spending an extra $5,000 or $10,000 on a consultant to try and make sure you get the highest return on investment (ROI) makes sense.

This is the current system — hire a consultant, send out a bunch of mail, wait for results. You experience it, I experience it, it’s kind of shitty from the donor perspective to be honest (you end up with a lot of letters in the recycle can). Of course there are different techniques for different segments of donors (major donors don’t get mailed letters, they get a fundraising officer at their doorstep), but the process is generally the same.

It should be apparent that there are a few obvious issues with the current fundraising paradigm.

The Fundraising Report Card disrupts this pattern.

A user of the Fundraising Report Card (usually a fundraiser or executive at the nonprofit, but also consultants) uploads anonymous donor data to the Report Card. With this data the Report Card calculates fundraising key performance metrics. Also known as, “really important statistics we should have been monitoring and analyzing for the past few years”.

Here’s an example, taken straight from the for-profit sector — customer retention broken down by engagement channel. Think about it for a moment, what do you think the odds are that Netflix keeps track of how many users they retain each month? High, right? They have shareholders to report to every quarter, and you better believe those shareholders want to know how many users Netflix has been retaining. (More on this here).

Internally, Netflix may break down that metric even further. They might segment the data by plan type and demographic information. What is our retention rate among users paying $20 or more a month on the east coast?

Answers to questions like these help inform strategy and are fundamental in setting realistic goals.

Yet, when it comes to the nonprofit sector a void exists. Sure, data abounds, but how can a fundraiser, executive director, or director of development really be asked “what channel provides your best ROI?”, most don’t have the tools to answer that question. And if they have the tools, they are not easy to use. They are inconvenient and clumsy… not to mention expensive. This is the void that the Fundraising Report Card fills.

By providing fundraisers, executive directors, consultants, and and even board members with access to easy to comprehend key metrics and interactive reports, we’ve created a platform that allows for data to be a vital part of decision making.

For example, we generate a retention analysis report, just like the one Netflix would use internally. And, one of the great things we do right off the bat is segment that data by giving level. Users can take it one step further and upload historical data based around specific appeals, and before they know it, they are taking a peek under the hood of their fundraising machine.

How is our donor retention among mid-level donors who have received our end of year appeal letter? With the Fundraising Report Card the nonprofit can answer that question, and depending on the answer they can adjust their strategy. Ultimately the nonprofit cuts costs and invests in fundraising efforts that prove to have the highest ROI. Cool, right?

You can learn more about the Fundraising Report Card here, and you can read a short case study from one of our early users here.

What I’ve been doing

Since August of 2015 I’ve been working with Greg to develop our strategy for the Fundraising Report Card. Beginning in January of this year, I was given the resources (money, time, people) and the responsibility (hit deadlines, set product demonstrations, build my network) to take this idea and make it into a reality.

On April 4th 2016 we launched the beta version of the Fundraising Report Card. Leading up to that event I spent most of my time focused on product development. I consider this my “product manager” phase. A lot of my time was spent on:

  • developing a product road map
  • determining which features would be included in which release
  • managing expectations of key stakeholders
  • learning about software as a service business models
  • reaching out to industry leaders who were interested in providing feedback and testing
  • designing the logo and front-end of the application
  • and writing a lot of Angular and JavaScript code (user interface stuff)

The objective early on was to get a minimal, functional, viable product in the hands of our potential users. We started working towards our April 4th release date at the end of February. We hit our deadline and we got plenty of engaged users to test it out. We found a lot of bugs, got a lot of great suggestions and learned a ton about the market we were trying to position ourselves in.

After the initial product was out in the wild I pivoted my focus towards getting people to use it. And, most importantly, getting those people to talk to me. This was, and still is part of the “collect feedback” phase. I’ve spent a lot of time…

  • reaching out to people on LinkedIn
  • setting up screen-share demonstrations
  • holding phone calls with existing users
  • hosting webinars with industry groups
  • configuring automated emails to nurture and engage users
  • and playing the role of “support agent” on our live-chat widget

Today my role has evolved even more. Elements from the product management, and collecting feedback stages are still part of my day-to-day, but now I have started the transition into “sales”.

This stage has involved a lot of…

  • researching pricing psychology
  • developing relationships with potential “partners” (consultants, consulting firms, data CRM companies)
  • organizing sales materials
  • building the foundation of a sales funnel (deal stages, workflows, etc.)
  • writing marketing and sales copy
  • talking with more and more users
  • and getting people (nonprofits) to give me their money

Sounds kind of fun, right?

Moving forward

Taking the Fundraising Report Card from idea to fruition has been an educational, challenging, and unbelievably fun process. Yet, the most exciting and compelling moment so far has been receiving supportive feedback from users.

For example, I recently I completed our first case study. The client, the Director of Philanthropy at a multinational relief organization with over $60 million in annual budget, used our beta tool and had a great, positive experience.

Creating that case study meant talking with the client and learning how they used our platform. Hearing their Director’s comments and learning how powerful our software was for them made me feel vindicated.

Receiving positive feedback is some sort of validation for all the work our team has put into this project. For me personally it has helped frame how important what we are working on really is.

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about the Fundraising Report Card please take a look at our website (press play on the video and you’ll even get to hear my voice!).

If you have any questions for me, like, “Zach, how the hell did you end up making some data analysis tool for nonprofits?” please don’t hesitate to reach out.

And finally, if you want to learn more about the nonprofit sector and how you can make an impact check out some of these resources…

Agile Modeling & Activity Diagrams

Recently I have been spending a considerable amount of my time developing an idea for a new business. I am working with the CEO of MarketSmart to develop an innovative application that could potentially reshape a niche portion of the non-profit world.

Greg, the CEO of MarketSmart who I am working closely with has been giving me guidance during this process.

For the past month or two I have been working on a “scope” document. (More on that below.) But now, I am beginning the process of creating activity diagrams and focusing on agile modeling.

I whole hardheartedly intend to start my own business in the near future. My personal Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) for the next 3-5 years is to be operating my own company.

The first day I interviewed for the web developer position at MarketSmart I mentioned that desire to Greg. In between working on client related tasks I have found myself making progress on this new product. I occasionally remind myself how fortunate I am to be working with a seasoned entrepreneur who is not only willing, but wanting to teach me anything and everything involved in this process.

Staying late at the office to make progress on this project feels like I am taking night class. Who knew school could be fun.

A few weeks back I posted a short article called Notes From Creating a New Product. I touched on four key theories I had picked up on during my first month of working with Greg on the new product.

During that month I was focused on developing the product scope. For that I found myself using Microsoft Office Outline. In Outline mode I created headers that represented pages, and sub-headers that related to page elements and page functions. In addition to writing thousands of words in Outline mode I created a series of page mock-ups in Adobe Illustrator. The mock-ups showed how the user would sign up, enter their data and view their “dashboard”.

Now, a few weeks later I have moved on from scoping out this idea, to modeling how users will interact with it. The goal here is to create a presentation that can be shared with technical professionals. These people should be able to look at this presentation and suggest what tech stack options are in play, and how long it would feasibly take to develop. I started to engage in this modeling process when I created page mock-ups in Illustrator, but that simply was the tip of the iceberg.

Here is what I have been learning and researching. I plan to implement these new techniques for this project within the next two weeks.

Activity Diagram

Greg has a large network of friends, business partners and advisers. He took the scope document I created in Outline and the mock-ups I put into Powerpoint and shared them with two highly technical people. Their response was to have me create activity diagrams.

So I researched and figured out what activity diagrams are.

UML 2 activity diagrams are typically used for business process modeling, for modeling the logic captured by a single use case or usage scenario, or for modeling the detailed logic of a business rule. Although UML activity diagrams could potentially model the internal logic of a complex operation it would be far better to simply rewrite the operation so that it is simple enough that you don’t require an activity diagram. In many ways UML activity diagrams are the object-oriented equivalent of flow charts and data flow diagrams (DFDs) from structured development.

State Diagram

Next I was instructed to look into state diagrams. This was another term I had never heard before and more researching ensued.

UML state machine diagrams depict the various states that an object may be in and the transitions between those states. In fact, in other modeling languages, it is common for this type of a diagram to be called a state-transition diagram or even simply a state diagram. A state represents a stage in the behavior pattern of an object, and like UML activity diagrams it is possible to have initial states and final states. An initial state, also called a creation state, is the one that an object is in when it is first created, whereas a final state is one in which no transitions lead out of. A transition is a progression from one state to another and will be triggered by an event that is either internal or external to the object.

Unified Modeling Language

After researching activity and state diagrams I did a google search for “uml”. The acronym was coming up a lot in my reading, and although it had not been mentioned by Greg I thought why not read more about it.
Unified Modeling Language (UML) is a standardized modeling language that (from my research at least) is mainly used for software development. UML enables developers to create models of highly complex processes that can be easily interpreted by others.

Agile Modeling

After researching UML I found myself stumbling upon the phrase “agile modeling”. I have frequently seen the word agile and scrum pop up on hacker news, but I had never taken the time to research what either meant or referred to.

While reading about both agile and scrum methodologies I found myself thinking about activity diagrams. Applying th ideas of scrum product development are further down the line. For now, my main priority is modeling user interactions with the application. For that, agile activity diagrams seem to be the way to go.


The last request Greg’s friends had of me was to create a wire frame sitemap. Although I enjoy designing in Illustrator, creating 50+ pages will be a task that I reserve for software more well suited. I plan on using Balsamiq to create a site map and show user flow throughout the app.

And that is what I have been learning over the past few weeks. Fun stuff. Important stuff. Practical stuff. I can’t wait to put it in action!