This week we welcome my colleague, Tara McMullen, to the blog-stage to talk about a type of data that’s particularly tough to wrangle, but totally worth the effort. Here’s Tara on the rewards to be found in digging through unstructured data (and some great places to find it).
In my work, I find myself constantly perusing social pages, local and regional news publications, and text-heavy lists and articles about wealthy and powerful people to try to pull out valuable “soft” information from these sources of unstructured data.
The information found in these sources is often invaluable in providing insight into a prospect’s relationships and connections, non-profit and civic affiliations, family members, neighbors, community groups, hobbies and activities (like golf or boating), and – of particular interest to those of us in the prospect development field – potential philanthropic interests.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a resource out there that has been able to effectively catalog the articles, snippets, or bios of interest in which a particular prospect or donor’s name appears. I would venture a guess that much of the difficulty in capturing the pertinent information that lives in these sources is because said sources fall under the umbrella of unstructured data and information which is difficult to web-scrape and catalog in a well-organized fashion without some measure of human intervention.
So, what’s unstructured data?
Simply put, it is information typically in some type of computer file that is not arranged in a pre-defined format. It is typically text, but it may also contain numbers, dates, or other elements all together. It’s an unorganized jumbled mess of information that needs to be identified and stored in a systematized fashion so the data can used for analysis and to find insight.
Interestingly enough, there are text mining and analysis software programs out there that can do some pretty amazing things, like utilize algorithms to try to infer inherent structure by examining word morphology, sentence syntax, and other patterns.
However, many of us with lean budgets may not have access to these types of tools in our shops, and while there are some relatively inexpensive options for text analytics out there (including some free/open source programs), I have found that they are not always intuitive or simple for a layperson to use. Many of them require some training in order to use – and possibly some knowledge of linguistics!
So…thus enters the intrepid prospect development professional. By using our skills in data collection and thoughtful analysis, we can spend some time to weed through the information, find a way to effectively capture it for posterity, and use the insight we gain from it to provide some framework for our prospect and donor analyses.
So, what are some examples of the sources of unstructured data and information we are apt to come across in our work? Well, just think of those text-heavy articles and biographies which require a full read-through to pull out salient pieces of information on our prospects, like the New York Social Diary and other regional metropolitan area publications that feature “social diary” types of columns.
These publications and features absolutely love to report on local events such as balls, charity galas, and art shows, where up-and-comers, affluent socialites, the nouveaux riche, and old money folks often get together to rub elbows. I have noticed that the content featured in these regional magazines and social rags isn’t always picked up by news aggregators (such as Lexis-Nexis or Highbeam), so taking the time to do a search for a prospect’s name on these sites can often allow you to find information that you might not find elsewhere.
For me, these sources frequently prove to be particularly valuable when trying to get a sense of the social and volunteer status and interests of a prospect, including who they might be connected to. If I see that a prospect or donor of interest has attended an event, who else was in attendance? Were there any special attendees being featured or honored? Who was photographed, including any folks who may have been featured in “grip-and-grins”? If the prospect or donor is a member of the sponsoring organization’s board or other committees – who else serves as a volunteer alongside them, and could they possibly provide leverage and assistance in cultivating and soliciting their peers?
By using some of these local and specialized sources to gain insight into social clubs, boards or committees, professional associations, or hobbies that your prospect is involved in, it can help give you a better sense of the causes and affiliations that are important to them. If they serve on a board or committee, it can give you an indication of not only their willingness to serve in a volunteer role, but also possibly a sense of the free time they may (or may not) have during which they could become more involved with your organization.
Also, many board positions come with an understanding that the volunteer will support the organization in a significant way – so it can often be an indicator of previous or future high-level philanthropic support. In addition, if you happen to see that a prospect is being honored at a gala or event, you may be able to infer a past philanthropic gift or ongoing major support that often comes with such an honor.
What else unstructured data can reveal
There are always going to be folks with household names who everyone in the non-profit sphere knows, and who live at the top of many an organizations’ gift pyramids. However, some of the prospects most interesting to me are those “middle donors” who aren’t quite Forbes 400 material, but who frequently run in the same circles as the 1%-ers who many of our organizations rely on heavily for support.
Many of these middle-tier folks have capacity in their own right and could potentially make a significant philanthropic contribution and be passionate advocates of the causes we represent. Often, some of these prospects fall into the “working socialite” category – they aren’t billionaires, and don’t necessarily have the “right” family name or a history of hobnobbing in high society, but they actively work the social scene and are influencers with a lot of connections as a result of their networking abilities.
These folks could potentially be effective leaders and volunteers for your organization, as well as potentially significant future donors who can interest and involve their peers in your cause. So, it is worth checking the regional publications and social diary-type sites that cover the local event and social scene in their respective areas – take a closer look and get to know more about these people and the circles (and events) they frequent!
Below are a sample of some of the resources I use often, arranged by geographic region. The sources may be unwieldy to plow through, but the insight you may gain from this unstructured data is often well-worth the investment of time!
New York City and Long Island
Orange County, California