Money & Business

YMCA of Austin Gets Buy-In, Results With "Big Data" Push

By / Apr 24, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The YMCA of Austin, Texas, boosted by the tech savvy of its hometown, has learned to embrace the use of big data in its day-to-day work. The group’s CEO spoke with Associations Now about that journey.

Do a quick scan of the Associations Now archives and you’ll find dozens of articles on “big data,” but few showing associations excelling at using it.

James Finck, president and CEO of the YMCA of Austin, believes that his organization could soon serve as the prime example of how nonprofits can benefit from embracing big data.

You have to adopt more of a for-profit mentality where you’re going to have to try some things that you don’t know much about.

Finck’s group, which recently partnered with data analytics firm Umbel, has been on a multi-year journey trying to better understand how it can integrate these tools and processes into the Y’s work. Umbel gave a behind-the-scenes look at the effort in a blog post last week.

“We started looking at our operations, not just locally in Austin but with the national YMCA as well, and it became very clear through a lot of different discussions at various levels that [big data] is going to drive our future,” he said. “If we don’t own it and we don’t get good at it, it’s not going to be good for our long-term health. The decisions that we have to make today are not slowing down, they’re just getting faster. And so, to have the most reliable information to make the best and quickest decision possible is going to be paramount for all organizations moving forward.”

Together with Umbel, YMCA of Austin developed a plan to collect data that would inform strategies to help increase membership, inform the group’s marketing efforts, and better understand its audience. The results were almost immediate.

“We anticipated to have a flat January for membership signups, year-over-year, which was good because January 2014 was a very good month for us historically speaking. But because we weren’t offering anything new, and there were no new facilities or upgrades, we didn’t expect much growth,” Finck said. “We instituted these new tools, though, and ended up seeing a pretty significant jump. That’s not to say these new data-driven marketing tactics were the lone cause of that jump, but it was the only thing we did different.”

Finck also said the new tools will help the organization understand how members engage with the YMCA of Austin, which will enable the group to potentially keep Y-goers happier and around longer.

“It’s about understanding their behaviors,” he said. “For example, we can use data to know when a new member came in in January and how long they stayed as a member on average, and why they ultimately dropped their membership. Then we could back that up perhaps and put a models in place to track them during that time, learn how to better communicate with them, or what incentives we could offer to better connect them with their fitness journey.”

Getting to that point has required a great deal of work, Finck said. The organization had to go through a culture shift that involved shedding a that’s-the-way-we-do-things-around-here mindset.

“You have to adopt more of a for-profit mentality where you’re going to have to try some things that you don’t know much about,” he said. “You don’t want to take such a big gamble that you’re betting the farm on a new or emerging trend, but you have to learn fast, learn to accept failure real fast, and learn to trust the partners that you’ve brought in to help you along the way. Getting information just for the sake of getting information won’t work—you have to know why you’re collecting certain data and how you plan to use it or if you’ll even use it.”

Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. More »

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