Knowing what you know: Using data to improve your fundraising practice
The General Social Survey - Giving, Volunteering and Participating (GSS-GVP) is a treasure trove of information that can help fundraisers in their day-to-day work say the leaders of Imagine Canada, Volunteer Canada and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Canada.
Conducted by Statistics Canada every five years, the two primary objectives of the GSS-GVP survey are to gather data on social trends to monitor changes in the living conditions and well-being of Canadians over time; and to provide information on specific social policy issues of current or emerging interest. The survey is the result of a partnership of federal government departments and voluntary sector organizations that includes Canadian Heritage, Health Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Canada Revenue Agency, Statistics Canada, Imagine Canada, and Volunteer Canada.
“The GSS-GVP data is valuable because it provides a point-in-time reflection for analyzing trends and donor behaviour over time,” say Megan Conway, CEO of Volunteer Canada. “This is important for fundraisers because it helps them understand how donor patterns have evolved or devolved over time. In an environment of constant change, a baseline for comparing trends is crucial for strategically identifying areas to focus on within fundraising and volunteering.”
She adds that while the environment may have changed since the 2018 GSS-GVP data was collected, it still provides valuable insights into giving and volunteering patterns in Canada that can inform future decision-making and planning.
Dave Lasby is the director of research for Imagine Canada and has been studying emergent issues of interest to the sector for more than a decade.
“It’s important to understand that much of the data produced by the GSS-GVP is driven by demographic, social and economic trends that don’t tend to change that rapidly,” he says in response to a question about why 2018 data is relevant today. “While the pandemic has driven or accelerated a lot of change, the long track record of this and predecessor surveys back to 1997 shows continuity even across significant dislocations such as the 2008/09 economic downturn.”
He believes the results of the upcoming survey will show a lot more commonality than differences with previous editions of the survey. According to StatsCan, the data for the survey will be generated in the fall of 2023, when they say they are hoping to reach a sample of 60,000 respondents. The study itself will be disseminated in 2025.
“We know that there is a lack of data in our sector,” says Lisa Davey, vice president of AFP Canada, who speaks to scores of fundraisers about their work and challenges every week. “AFP Canada, and many others in our sector, consistently advocate for more data on our sector. While the need for more data remains, we want to use the data that is available to us through the GSS-GVP. That’s why AFP Canada is focused on raising awareness about the GSS-GVP—we want to promote the value of this data helping to make it more accessible.
“The data points can also be helpful for reports, proposals and even to help support requests internally for funds to develop new fundraising programs,” says Davey. “Seeing what keeps Canadians from giving more or how they like to give is very helpful information for fundraisers, particularly as they develop their programs and fundraising plans.”
AFP Canada is working in partnership with Imagine Canada, Volunteer Canada, Ajah, Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada and the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada to develop tools that will help fundraisers use data to understand trends in the charitable and volunteer sectors, identify strengths and gaps, and even discover new opportunities. One of those tools is Canadian Knowledge Hub for Giving and Volunteering website which offers information and resources on giving to and participating in charity work.
“The website makes it easy to explore the data,” says Davey. “For example, we can see who donates and how much they give, in Canada or by province, how they give, and the type of organizations they support.”
The GSS-GVP data can be very detailed.
According to Lasby, it provides a detailed, contextualized picture of donors. In addition to a wealth of demographic data, it provides insight into the causes they support, how they respond to solicitation methods, what keeps them from giving more, and the links between giving and volunteering, helping others directly, or involvement in social movements.
“Fundraisers should care particularly about this data because it provides insight into the broad donor base while still presenting the donor as a whole person,” he says. “There is no other data source combing the level of detail collected and large sample size to make many sub-populations visible. For example, if one wants to know about the amount donors living in the Prairie provinces give to social services organizations, what other causes they give to and their motivations for giving, there is the data source for that.”
The GSS-GVP data can inform fundraising and day-to-day decisions about donors in several ways including developing a case for support, diversified fundraising strategies, and making age-specific appeals. And it can help inform fundraising methodology such as online campaigns to traditional telemarketing and direct mail campaigns.
“Overall, the GSS-GVP data can give fundraisers valuable insights into donor behaviour, preferences, and trends,” says Conway. “By using this data to inform fundraising and day-to-day decisions, fundraisers can be more effective in raising funds, building relationships with donors, and advancing their organization's mission.”
“The best use of this data is probably more strategic than day-to-day. In that context, it’s terrific as a reference point, something to compare one’s experiences and intuitions against,” says Lasby. “It provides a great framework for thinking about donors and giving and allows one to take the wealth of experience that one amasses over the years, organize it and translate it into possible strategies and courses of action.”
While the GSS-GVP data can be extremely useful, a specific challenge of the data set is that diverse and racialized group are underrepresented. Statistics Canada has recognized the limitations of many of its data-gathering methods and is working to develop more inclusive structures that begin to address the lack of inclusion from diversity and equity-seeking communities.
“Pushing for more inclusive data within the GSS-GVP can help fundraisers pinpoint groups that have historically been underrepresented or marginalized,” says Conway. “This knowledge would allow for the development of targeted strategies and initiatives to address these gaps, fostering more inclusive and equitable philanthropic practices.”
“Thinking about the role of this specific data, I think the challenge a lot of people face isn’t an absence of data, but too much data that is very difficult to get one’s arms around,” says Lasby. “People need a sense of how the data can be organized, aggregated and queried to produce actionable insights and a baseline against which one can compare and contrast to reach deeper understanding, to move from data to knowledge.”
“With the Canadian Knowledge Hub for Giving and Volunteering website, we are working to make data more useful and accessible to fundraisers,” says Davey. “As David Lasby points out—to move from data to knowledge, that is our aim.”