Coming out of college, I was lucky to have the opportunity to work on the Obama 2012 re-election campaign. After we worked to re-elect our President, I honestly didn’t know how to follow that in my career. I wanted to keep using my background in mathematics to work for social good, but wasn’t sure what to do. Before I even had a chance to move back home and figure it out, Dan started Civis Analytics and gathered a team (including me!) to figure out how else we could use data science to help people.
I’ve been amazed with the types of clients that come to Civis with problems to solve. As a member of Applied Data Science’s nonprofit team, I work with great organizations every day that are using data to better serve their constituents and advance their causes. One of those clients is USA for UNHCR, the US arm of the UN Refugee Agency, which works to save, protect, and rebuild the lives of individuals who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence and conflict.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian Reich, who leads The Hive, a special projects unit at USA for UNHCR specifically focused on getting more Americans to engage in efforts to address the global refugee crisis. With Brian’s background in politics, he understands the challenges associated with getting people to engage, how to build support for a cause, cultivate relationships and ultimately motivate action. He’s working to change how nonprofit organizations, like USA for UNHCR, can bring data science into the mix to understand people in new and different ways, connecting with them on an individual level – with survey research, predictive modeling, and message testing – to achieve the greatest impact over the long-term.
The following is a transcript of our conversation.
When did you start using data for The Hive?
Data has been an integral part of The Hive since we launched in the fall of 2014. We knew that our efforts had to go beyond simply raising awareness of the global refugee crisis. In an effort to get new people to engage, we knew we needed to be strategic about who we targeted, how we reached them, and what we were asking people to do. We teamed up with Civis Analytics right away – and asked them to help us think and act like the Obama campaign: engage individuals, understand what they value, and activate them beyond just giving money. Smart data was the foundation for all of that.
This was an entirely new way of doing things for UNHCR – and arguably for the non-profit sector as a whole – so it took time for the organization to appreciate the impact individual-level data can have across the organization. We had to start by mapping out what exactly it would mean to use predictive modeling, so people were clear on what to expect. Once we completed that, we were able to start the multi-step process to develop the data and transform the way we target and engage audiences who aren’t currently involved in efforts related to the refugee crisis.
What does the process look like?
We started by analyzing our current donors. From our current donors, Civis created lookalike models that gave us an appreciation for who was already responding and taking action to support refugees – and, of course, the much larger universe of people who were not yet engaged. We also conducted a national survey to measure people’s knowledge and support of refugee aid, along with a host of related issues, and Civis used that information to build models that explored the population beyond the the lookalikes – what they know about refugees, what they might need to understand better in order to be motivated to take action, and similar.
We started all this work when awareness and interest in the global refugee crisis was pretty limited – and certainly confined to only people who were already deeply knowledgeable on the subject. Then, at the end of last summer, that all changed. The number of refugees flooding out of Syria into Europe exploded. Heart-breaking pictures of a young refugee who drowned trying to make it to safety suddenly made headline news and took over social media channels. All of a sudden, the global refugee crisis was the top story all over the world. President Obama challenged Americans to step up and help. The Pope said it was our moral responsibility as a society to aid refugees. The attention and the interest in the refugee crisis was higher than ever before.
We had to move quickly if we wanted to use this spike in interest to engage more people – but we knew that the traditional methods and messages wouldn’t be enough. And we didn’t have all our new ways of approaching this challenge figured out. While we had predictive data, we didn’t have a lot of data about what people thought about the crisis or a baseline around engagement in the US. We needed to understand what we should say and the expected response. It was clear that Americans cared about helping refugees, but we needed to know more so we could determine how to get people more involved, to take more meaningful actions. We turned to survey research and rapid-response message testing, applied the data we had to test everything we could think of – so that we were able to test efforts we thought could be most effective, and learn the most in the shortest period of time.
How has the data and message testing impacted The Hive?
Everything is informed by the data, both directly and indirectly. We have an unprecedented level of sophistication that we can apply – who we target, how we position issues related to the refugee crisis, and the ways we work with partners. Beyond our specific efforts:
- We have demonstrated that we aren’t a traditional non-profit organization, but rather a sophisticated, engagement-oriented organization that approaches engagement with a combination of political, consumer, media, and tech expertise that hasn’t been attempted before.
- We have clear insights to our audience and can prioritize accordingly – not just look at who might engage based on their past behaviors, but look to engage people who are likely to engage if given the right opportunity.
- We build our messages based on the rapid-message testing, so we don’t have to rely on what our gut tells us.
- We know the best ways to reach individuals, whether digital ads or snail mail, through partners, or another method, so we don’t waste time or resources on audiences that aren’t likely to take action.
And with all of this, we’ve been able to improve our organizational capacity and shift the way we think about our challenges. We’re looking at individuals – human beings – not donors, or advocates. We can do a much better job tapping into what we know people are already doing, or comfortable doing, instead of trying to compel people to do what we think benefits our organization best. Our cause is important, but we need to think more about the people we are talking to – understanding who they are and what motivates them to ultimately engage them and support our cause.
What has been the most surprising thing the data uncovered?
We were making assumptions based on our gut – and they were pretty good. While the data validated our assumptions, it also revealed a whole new set of opportunities. It uncovered some surprising untapped geographic markets, hotspots in the parts of the country that we had never thought of, groups of people who don’t fit the stereotype of those who would have been our targets.
Beyond target audiences, the data has expanded the ways we think about how to engage people. Instead of relying on the existing messages – the ways you commonly hear about the refugee crisis from a nonprofit or through media coverage – we now had messages that have been tested and verified by data science. Instead of speaking about the refugee crisis as an emergency situation, or telling stories of the horror refugees face or hope they retain against all odds, we can present issues in ways that Americans understand, connect with on a more personal level, or make sense of through an experience they can appreciate.
All of these insights continue to show how data enables us to target more efficiently and effectively.
What advice would you give to other organizations who currently don’t use data?
It’s key you don’t try and do it on your own. We are one organization, with incredible insights – but still only know some of what we should about the audiences we want to engage. The data gets better when there’s more of it. So we want to collaborate and learn together, not just with other non-profits, but with brands and tech companies. The people we want to engage are more than just potential donors or advocates to a social cause, and we need to think about all the different elements of their life that are related to what we are asking them to do. It’s also important that we know the data doesn’t solve everything on its own – on our side, as an organization, we need to recognize that the data forces us to change our approach. If we target new people, with better messages, but only offer the same options to take action as always, we shouldn’t expect a different result. The data serves as the foundation for a totally different way of operating, so we also have to think about what changes about our approach to everything from staffing to organizing to engaging individuals.
Data is a whole new way of thinking about engaging people and now’s the time to take a data-driven approach for your organization.