Correlation, Causation, & the Chicago Connection
Earlier last month, I had the chance to meet my good friend Joseph Volin, Senior Director of Constituent Engagement at Illinois Tech, in downtown Chicago. Over a cup of coffee, Joe and I geeked out about everything alumni engagement — from engagement analytics, to the age-old correlation vs causation debate.
What is causation and correlation? What is the debate all about?
The most common confusion in alumni relations and fundraising offices is the relation between engagement and giving. So, let’s use that example to understand correlation and causation.
Correlation: If an alum attends an event, they are more likely to donate.
Causation: An alum who attended an event is more likely to donate because they attended that event.
The difference here is subtle, but it leads to deeper questions — Is it worth investing in alumni engagement, volunteering programs, or even mentorship programs? And how does this translate to better fundraising?
What Joe said: We’re asking the wrong question
Joe offered a very interesting perspective — It doesn’t matter whether it’s correlation or causation. What’s paramount is that we focus on that particular segment. For example, what if the folks at Illinois Tech learned that the segment of alumni who visited the campus library were donating much more than the average alum?
Is there a causation there? Maybe, maybe not. We need to realize that there's now a segment of alumni who frequent the campus library or a segment of alumni who've gone to the campus library in the last, let's say, 12 months. We must allocate some resources and money behind marketing for that particular segment to drive more donations.
Going further down the rabbit hole, I realized we need to find segments where there is a correlation to whatever outcome you're trying to drive. Let’s take the example of former athletes. Are they giving comparatively more than the average alum? If so, can you execute a marketing program? Or a specific outreach for athletes who haven't given back, but who you know belong to a segment that is worth focusing on?
The foundation? Data!
Identifying these segments is an important lesson for everybody in the industry. A lot of institutions don't even track data beyond event attendance and donations; because people are not able to make the case for why tracking this data is critical.
The frame of reference has now changed; it's not about figuring out causation, it's about identifying segments and then learning what to do with that information. And how do you identify these segments? By tracking more data. It informs you which segments are worth spending more time on, given whatever outcome you're trying to achieve.
What this means for alumni relations teams and Almabase
Our conversation made me realize there must be a certain level of deliberation when we’re building engagement metrics programs, engagement reports, engagement studio features etc. on the Almabase platform. We have to ask ourselves how we can build them in a way that informs segmentation, rather than trying to figure out causation.
We have all the data — we know who made the donations, who attended events, and everything else. Can we leverage this data to create smarter segmentations? For instance – people who interacted with a business directory are 3x more likely to attend an event. And is it possible to automate this process?
This would help alumni relations professionals prioritize more important segments, and focus on targeting them for specific appeals or campaigns. **This way, alumni directors can also make the case for tracking more data to identify segments and allocating more resources to engage with them. This beats the age-old way of non-targeted engagement, which relies on periodic newsletters to your entire database, and the occasional Facebook post.
My conversation with Joe yielded some great ideas that may well be the way forward from here. While we were done with coffee, I was left wanting to pick Joe’s brains for much longer. Maybe over Zoom sometime! I can certainly see how his thought leadership is so valuable to our industry. Thank you, Joe. 🙌