Crossing the Rubicon

May 12, 2017

Here in the world of United Way, we’ve always stressed how we’re all locally run and managed.  We pay a “license fee” if you will to share the United Way brand, with all the responsibilities and conditions that come with it.

We’ve all maintained our own local files forever – moving from paper files and pledge cards to spreadsheets, and now to databases and websites. In Tulsa we don’t have that many firms that are either (a) based here who send $$ to other United Ways where they have operations, or (b) have outposts in Tulsa that receive $$ from other United Ways.  So for most of our 90 years it’s been a semi-closed system.

However, as the world gets smaller we’ve started facing the reality that the ways of Google and Facebook might be in our future.  By that I mean a large federated system where users (donors and volunteers) can login to one web front end with a uniform appearance (like Google), access their information profile from anywhere, and their lifetime history of giving and volunteering will follow them as they move from job to job, new career choices, and even into their retirement years.

At this week’s United Way Worldwide Community Leader’s Conference, I got to see some of the beginning steps toward such a product, and some data behind why we need it.  In some ways, the changes are being driven by how newer members of the workforce, such as Millennials, are changing company behavior, particularly with respect to being a good community partner.

Some tidbits of the survey data:

  • Research shows that 86% of employees expect their companies to provide opportunities for them to give back and engage with their community.
  • Companies should create a social atmosphere around giving and volunteer opportunities, and employees want that information year ’round — not just during the traditional United Way campaign giving season.
  • Companies want these opportunities to provide team building and team engagement to build better employees.
  • Prospective donor/volunteers listen to their peers — they will often donate/volunteer where their friends and colleagues are involved.

All nonprofits struggle with Churn: the cost of obtaining a new supporter/donor vs. the cost of retaining an existing one, and how to keep the latter from becoming the former.  Even in a smaller market like Tulsa, we have donors who get lost — perhaps they gave to us when they worked at a company with a strong corporate giving culture and then moved somewhere else.  If they don’t tell us where they’ve moved, they’re lost.

Our Holy Grail is the “United Way Rollover Account” — in the same way that folks move their 401k from company to company, we’d love to be able to build an account (or profile) that follows an individual throughout their life, letting their preferences for volunteering and their history of giving follow them.  It doesn’t take much to imagine this could even be something that they share with prospective employers, much like students show university admissions proof of their well-roundedness via their extracurricular activities, or how people look at your LinkedIn profile.

The project to build such a system is called Rubicon, and it’s not hard to see the significance of the name…Rubicon was the river that Julius Caesar crossed approaching Rome with his army, and was the mandated point to “leave your army and come alone.”  I could go further in describing the other, hidden meanings in this event and what it meant for the Roman Republic, but I’ll leave that to you and Google.

The expression has come to mean the point where there’s no turning back.

The project as imagined would have all United Ways clean up and upload their campaign data (no small task!) to a giant data warehouse in the cloud, whereby a SalesForce-and-Deloitte Digital built web front end would let each user access and build upon their giving profile.  Data normalization functions would be employed when the databases are slurped in – looking for common key fields to perhaps merge records and find out that “Surprise: John Smith who gives and volunteers through Apache in Houston is the same John Smith who used to give when he was at Magellan in Tulsa.”

It holds promise to give us that long-hoped-for way to track donors/volunteers over their work life, and at the same time provide a more consistent way to provide opportunities and messaging directly to our donors.  As corporations have become lean, the traditional Employee Campaign Coordinator (ECC in our jargon) has either vanished or become so stressed and busy with other revenue-producing activities that expecting any more than the bare minimum only happens at the biggest firms with the most solid corporate giving histories.

Small businesses also want to be perceived as an engaged workplace, and provide their employees as much opportunities to give back as their larger brethren, so we’re hoping that this will provide an easy way for folks to explore the possibilities for giving in their towns, and build up those teams as well.

And after a long career, a retiree will be able to look back not only that they provided a good life for themselves and their family, but their commitment to supporting a cause or helping solve a community problem.  By continuing to get updates in the manner they prefer, they’ll perhaps stay involved in their nonprofit cause, and perhaps keep in touch with their former co-workers, working in the lines at a food pantry, being a VITA volunteer tax preparer, or at a special event.

It’s an exciting prospect that we’ll be watching closely over the next few years.

Meanwhile, in our own little corner of the United Way world, we’re building our own version, sorta:  we have 4 web applications built for our partner agencies and Community Investment that we’re slurping into a cloud-based shared data warehouse.  Our hope is to be able to clean and index these 4 discrete databases and answer questions we’ve never been able to answer.  So far, we’re calling it DAAV for Data Analysis and Visualization project.  Not as catchy as Rubicon, but stay tuned.

Since most of the data visualization tools out there (Tableau, etc.) are designed to give you insights into protected and secure datasets, their licensing fees are obscene when you’re looking to give those tools to your 58 nonprofit partners.  So thanks to our long-standing and gracious NTech Collaborative partners at Xenolytic, we’re turning that on its’ head by giving our folks FREE tools to plumb the depths of this data.

In the end by giving our partners the ability to query the data they’ve submitted to us, they’ll be able to see patterns in their actions year over year that overwise might not be apparent.  As I say: Stay tuned.

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