Donor Database = True Love

We met at the filing cabinet…

Those of us who have been around awhile remember the days of 3X5 cards, elaborate paper filing systems, multiple excel sheets and wonky Access databases.

Even in those days, fundraising professionals knew that donor information needed to have more to it than what was going in the bookkeeping system.

The donor tracking systems were horribly inefficient, with tons of opportunity for error – from transferring the wrong spelling of a donor name from excel sheet to excel sheet, to losing a 3X5 card about your most important donor, to using a database that left everyone confused and befuddled.

I would like to say those were the “old days” but I know of nonprofits still using these systems and suffering. They are on a perpetual bad first date.

I don’t think I can trust you…

Next came the off the shelf Donor Databases. You know who they are (or nonprofits went with their own bizarre proprietary systems (I know of one built by a board member’s nephew).

Those databases did more than most nonprofits knew what to do with them (and still do). They were clunky and ugly, but they were better than what was being used before and even though they cost some money that nonprofits were hesitant to part with; they cringed a little and spent it anyway because they needed something to help them understand their donors and how to raise more for their missions.

What a good majority of nonprofits didn’t do after making the investment in a database was think through business rules for setting up constituents and data in a way that managed the data and made analysis easy. I once worked for a nonprofit who created 268 appeal codes in just their first two years of using a new database.

In the typical nonprofit modus operandi, data entry staff were unschooled in data, and often doing it on top of another job. When data entry positions became a regularly staffed position within development departments, training was still at a minimum and the understanding of what would be the ideal output of the donor database was not what was used to determine how the data went in to the database.

Worse, most donor databases were used as a companion to the financial records; only providing more detailed transactional information about a gift  or donor contact but not used as a robust and comprehensive look forward at the donor relationship.

Reports were often wrong and so donor data became something no one really trusted.  Not a great step for the romance with your donor database.

No, you can’t just buy me dinner and expect…

Using the database as a transaction log does not bode well for a growing relationship with your donors.

Donors are engaging with your mission; the value you bring to the clients you serve. If you aren’t engaging with your donors in a forward thinking way – they will stop giving.

Donor Databases are an excellent way to create a plan of action around donor engagement.

You want donor participation with your organization – and yes, that means a gift.

When you use your donor database just to record a gift or contact, you are missing the entire point. That means the gift becomes the measure, the channel the gift came in becomes the measure, and the relationship takes a back seat. This is one of the reasons why donor retention across the sector is too low – we put making our numbers in fundraising channels above the relationship with our donors.

Guess what? Understanding your donor and how they want to give usually turns out to be what’s best for the nonprofit as well. Your donor database is your best friend in managing the donor relationship.

Most donor databases today allow you to look ahead – they are forward thinking rather than strictly transactional. Of course you’re also recording the gifts – but the way you record them and what they mean become the story of your donor participation, and that keeps the relationship strong and growing.

How exciting!

You are my one true love…

The donor database is your single source of truth about your donors. Get rid of the excel spreadsheets and lists. Enter donor data from your event platforms into the donor database. Make sure any donor data in other systems gets captured in your donor database.

When you are pulling information about your donors, always get your information from your donor database; don’t use information from secondary source or tertiary source. The database is your one and only- your true love.

If you have a good donor database now, and you haven’t done the following six things, please schedule them in to your workplan. Your donor data will help you make better fundraising decisions and ultimately help you raise more for your mission.

  1. Have Business Rules

You need business rules for your data entry. These are based on what you need to understand about the story of your donors and how to engage them better. This is everything from how you enter donor contact information to how you create campaigns and appeals.

2. Train Users

If you have a database with all the bells and whistles, chances are you aren’t using it to its full potential. Most database companies offer training packages for users. While they can sometimes be costly, the cost of bad data management is greater and will cost you donors, and donations (in the for profit sector, bad data management is costing businesses 30% of revenue!)

Unfortunately, it’s harder to measure what you didn’t get; so nonprofits consistently choose saving money over making money by making the necessary investment. They cut off their nose to spite their face (side note: that’s such a weird saying but completely works here).

3.  Keep it Clean

Garbage in, garbage out. Taking time to clean up your data to follow your new and awesome business rules means all of that data you have will actually mean something. Trust in the donor data will return and you will be able to look at your data analytics to make the best decisions.

Here’s a great blog post by Mary Hackett at Ravela Insights with steps to clean up your data.

4. Use the database to plan forward

With the introduction of a number of new donor databases and the retooling to accommodate nonprofits becoming more donor-centered and relationship based; most donor databases now provide ways to plan your donor engagement in advance. This allows you more control of when and how you’ll ask donors to participate with a gift. If you aren’t using the forward planning features (their version of a pipeline, moves management, etc…) then start using that feature at a minimum level to see the benefit – then level up.

5. Do Analytics

The consultancy Grant Thornton notes that nonprofits can use analytics to “streamline operations, increase cost efficiency, determine and optimize financial margin by program, model and forecast performance (e.g., membership trends, donor trends, resource needs and revenue expectations), improve the budgeting process, and enhance overall mission effectiveness,” (BizTech 2018)

In other words, your donor data tells a story and that story should drive your strategies and decisions.

6. Consult a professional

If you just don’t have the staff capacity, knowledge or bandwidth to tackle your database issues – then hire a professional consultant. There are many good ones out there that will help you set up your database, create your business rules, train your staff, help you utilize the bells and whistles to use the database to engage with your donors, set up your reports as well as do analytics for you.

Also, if you don’t have a donor database – get one. Everyone deserves to have a true love in their life.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Silos Are For Farming

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Imagine we decide to meet in Italy. We’re taking your whole team for a staff retreat (and someone else paid! Woohoo!) So, we get your team together and we say, “we’re going to Italy!”

Everyone is going to have a completely different vision of that. One person imagines arriving in the summer on a cruise ship in Venice, while another person on your team imagines a sports car and an autumn drive along the coast – and yet another imagines arriving by train in Florence and wandering among the museums and seeing the statue of David.

I imagine staying at a villa in Tuscany hearing a crazy American lady (is that me?) saying, “Ladybugs, Katherine…lots and lots of ladybugs!”

So, what’s the problem? We’re all in Italy so didn’t we hit the goal? But wait, we aren’t anywhere near the same place or time. So no, we did not hit the goal.

People Power the Plan

Even if you have a super clear goal and an awesome plan; like gas in your car, or food in your body, your plan will not run unless you are fueling it.

Your fuel? The people on your team. Harnessing the power of  staff, board, volunteers and other stakeholders toward raising lots of money for the mission seems like it would be an easy thing to do. Everyone is there for a good reason (we hope because of the mission), they want to do a kick ass job and be recognized for their contribution. And, they don’t want to be stressed out all the time. Easy, right?

Not so much.

How can you harness the power of the people to create an integrated team, heading toward the same goal and arriving at the same place at the same time?

First, it starts with the goal and being in complete agreement about where you are going and when you will get there. Like Italy.

Get together as a team and talk about the specifics. Communicate. Talk about your goal in story form – make sure you get your brain involved – releasing key chemicals and lighting up all over the place (take a look at the brain science behind stories vs bullet points here).

Next, be clear on roles and responsibilities. Who is the “project manager” for each goal? It’s probably a team effort, but the buck stops with one person who is responsible for making sure the tasks get done to hit the goal. Can’t be two people, sorry. ONE person is responsible.

Who is a contributor? You can have lots of these. Make sure they all know it and agree.

Spend some time using the easy SMARTplan template here to get your specific goals (story!), metrics, action, roles and deadlines together.

Then execute.

Plan, do, check, adjust and repeat.

Show Me The Data!

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion”

– W. Edwards Demming

Remember the scene in the movie Jerry McGuire when Tom Cruise’s character, sports agent Jerry McGuire is trying to convince Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, football player Rod Tidwell to keep him as his agent? Rod isn’t convinced with Jerry’s talk and tells Jerry that he will stay if Jerry proves himself. Rod tells Jerry, “show me the money!”

That’s what it’s like with fundraising plans, opinion is just talk. To set the relevant goals and strategies you should be yelling, “show me the data!”

Too often non-profits do their fundraising budgets and plans based on a percentage increase over last year. While last year’s actual revenue is an important data-point, it is not the only data-point, and channel-based planning is short sighted. If you are planning revenue on what comes in through a certain fundraising channel, you aren’t taking the donor into much consideration at all. You are also pushing donors into what you want them to do. That’s not very donor centered.

However, the reality is, you probably can’t get your organization to think holistically about the donor experience right now. You are expected to hit a target number in each channel and goal setting is often rushed in to budgeting time.

So, we are going to break down your data in an easy way that tells both the story of your donors, and of your channel revenue. You will use this data to build a plan using the data you have, and to start to make a shift toward donor-based planning versus channel-based planning.

In the end you’ll have growing revenue because you are working a plan, and that’s what everyone wants so you can better deliver your mission. Once that’s moving along nicely, then you can start to shift the focus (and the accounting department) to a donor-centered model.

Here are some of the arguments you will hear about data driven planning:

“I don’t trust the data in our donor database”

“The database person doesn’t know how to pull these reports”

“These numbers don’t match the accounting”

Don’t get stuck here.

Knowing your data is critical to creating a plan, but you need to do this one thing:


Data, You Complete Me

Here is the data you need to gather:

Financials from last 3 years

What does your accounting department say you made and how are they reporting it?

Strategy and Recommendations

Any strategy or recommendations provided by a consultant, your key staff and your development committee of the board. Gather strategies and recommendations from blogs or books you’ve read, and information you obtained at a conference, etc.…


Fundraising and marketing go hand in hand, but often get their signals crossed or work in silos. If you are not the person planning the marketing strategy – then make sure you get the previous year’s marketing plan and reports from the marketing person. Have a one-on-one meeting to get the strategies and activities they are thinking about doing during the year you are planning for. The message marketing sends out is like air cover for your fundraising. If it is pointing in the wrong direction, you’ll be exposed.

Donor Database

This is where it can get tricky. Below is a link to download a data template. There are four tabs on the excel sheet. Have your database person fill them out to the best of their ability. Make sure the reports pass the sniff test. If they don’t seem right, run them again to make sure that the queries are correct. You have people who can help you with this – good data people on the board or the help desk at the database company you use. Or, outsource to a company that does data analysis for nonprofits.

Donor Segments and Retention

The most important data in creating a donor centric plan is knowing segments and retention.

Every organization uses different timing for when a donor becomes lapsed. Make sure you are being consistent.

Find someone who sees more than a spreadsheet and can translate the numbers into what the story of your fundraising program has been. People who can see the story within the data are rare – find one; they are like an oracle on a mountain top (sometimes they even speak in riddles) and will provide wisdom you can’t get from anywhere else.

Channel Data

For our purpose here, I refer to “channel” as the bucket you (the fundraising team) count the gifts in. Your counting may or may not match the accounting buckets and that gets confusing when the board is watching the financial reports versus the fundraising reports. You define this in whatever way makes sense to you, and that will make the most sense as you put together your plan and your budget. What the template will do for you is tie your channel to your donors and that’s ultimately what we want to start planning strategy and activities around.

Unfortunately, “making your numbers” in a specific channel often means you are funneling donors into a giving behavior that doesn’t allow you to grow your revenue through a solid donor strategy. That’s a whole other discussion .

This post is about gathering your data and using it to set goals and strategies for the ultimate result of having an actionable fundraising plan.

Remember, you are going to have a kick-ass plan when you’re done with the SMARTplan process. It’s a plan you can execute. And, when you and your team work a plan, you will raise more money, and you will work smarter not harder.

Some information you should look at:

  • Number of donors in each segment that upgraded giving from the year before and the resulting revenue
  • Number of donors that gave less than the year before and the resulting lost revenue
  • Number of donors that did not give again and the resulting lost revenue
  • Number of new donors in the year before that gave again this year

Donor Data Templates

The first tab on the template is about the donor pool as a whole. Run reports that provide information on the unique donors and their cumulative gifts.

You can go as deep as you want on your donor data to learn the trends and the story your donors are telling you. It all depends on the level of knowledge your donor database person has in building these queries. There are also outside agencies that will do this for you, and if you have signed the right paperwork to protect donor confidentiality, there’s no reason that not to utilize that service. I believe it’s one of the best investments you can make.

Knowing your data puts you in the driver’s seat and will help you raise more money.

If you are struggling in filling this out, then move on and remember what I said, do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Now, you might be saying, “this donor information is all well and good, but I have to plan and budget what I’m going to raise in each fundraising channel.”

In the workbook, the channel tabs have templates that will give you a great look at your donor giving in the channels and tell a bigger story than just the revenue on your financials.

Each channel tab is a one-year snapshot – make sure you note the year in the top left and if you can, do one for each of the last three years.

Once you have all your data gathered, bring your team together (make sure your oracle is there) and talk it through. Look at the goals and strategies you are setting to decide if they are relevant enough to add to the plan or if changes need to be made. Look at the data as a story, talk it through as a story – SEE what the quantitative and qualitative data is telling you that you should do.

If you have questions about how to fill in the templates or about how see the story your data is telling you, please feel free to email me at and we can set up a quick call.

Here’s the template:

Donor Data Worksheet

You Are Not a Unicorn (and you don’t want to be)

u·ni·corn: /yoona korn/


  1. a mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead.
  2. something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain.

There’s a lot of talk of unicorns in the nonprofit sector lately. Nonprofit professionals often refer to themselves and each other as Unicorns because they are doing something rare.

They are eschewing a higher paycheck; they have chosen to do good over being a corporate minion. They don’t work long extra hours for the money – they do it for a noble cause.

Unicorns are amazing.

  • Unicorns are Gentle (but Ferocious when challenged)
  • Unicorns are Strong and Powerful
  • Unicorns are Rare

Here’s something to consider:

Unicorns are not and were not ever REAL.

Casting yourself as a mythical, magical and rare creature is an insult to your abilities and strength as an individual. You are not a mythical creature. You do not need to rely on magical abilities to be unique and exceptional.

I argue this:

You are a rhinoceros.

Rhinoceroses are ‘perissodactls’, which means ‘odd toed ungulates’.  Horses are also members of this species. The word ‘rhinoceros’ means ‘nose-horn’. (a member of the same species as a horse and has a horn…unicorn?!)

Rhinoceros are amazing.

  • Rhinos are Gentle (but Ferocious when challenged)
  • Rhinos are Strong and Powerful
  • Rhinos are Rare
  • Rhinos are also
    • Tough
    • Stubborn
    • Fearless

And unlike a Unicorn, Rhinoceros are REAL.

You are not a Unicorn (and you don’t want to be). Embrace your Rhino self and charge ahead with changing the world as the strong, powerful, tough, fearless and REAL beast you are.

With affection from a fellow Rhinoceros,


In The Between

Twenty years ago I wrote  an essay on my son Alex’s birthday. He’s 28 today and in honor of his birthday I’m posting that essay. It’s a reminder to be present and breathe in the between.

January 23, 1999


I am sitting here with a latte. I made it first thing this morning, blurry eyed and clutching baby precariously in one arm, I steamed milk for the latte with the other. It sits rapidly cooling as I juggle kid and animal needs all morning.

Then, for a brief heartbeat, a single exhaled breath I find myself in quiet observation of the moment. Everyone is content and a second has slowed enough for me to experience it.

I breathe. Softly, as not to disrupt it.

I feel the need to record this piece of time before it spins away. Even now, in searching for something on which to write, the living snapshot that enthralled me has powered up and raced forward.

Do I continue to describe the moment that crept in between the ordered chaos? It is in the past even as I try to hold it in the present. Isn’t life itself made up of second after second of this stuff? There was nothing special about that moment, only the complete observation of it.

The cat may have been the cause. Stepping gingerly onto my lap, knowing full well that it is a place that moves suddenly from rest to motion, taking the risk. She purred. Heavy and mesmerizing, maybe that was the catalyst.

Or, could it have been the dog? Being dog-like, he sat himself weightily next to the baby. An important job, protective, watchful as the baby happily played with cardboard Lego box.

Should that moment be captured because my oldest son, eight years old today sat at my side building a Lego spaceship? Hundreds of pieces coming together by his hand into a recognizable form. Enthralled in the creation of it.

 Almost grown up. Still a baby.

The music was playing. A woman’s voice. My favorite song. The one we like to belt out at the top of our beautiful off-key voices.

The moment paused.

I breathe. Softly

Happy Birthday Alexander.

Relevant Goals = Relevant Results

What you do is important, and you want the results to mean something.

In nonprofit, in order to do that, you have to set goals; goals around program delivery, money management, people management, and fundraising. Each of these goals is  built upon successes and failures of the past, and often your attention and setting of future goals is only given to reflection of the results from the year or two behind you.

As an organization, how often are you asking whether the goal you are setting is relevant? How do you determine whether it is essential?

In the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, (Crown Publishing Group, 2014) the very first steps in becoming disciplined about acting on only the essentials is to explore and look (evaluate).


transitive verb: to investigate, study, or analyze look into

In setting fundraising goals, exploring comes in the form of looking at the right donor data (sources, segments, retention, lapsed, etc…) and fundraising channel data. It is important to gather both quantitative and qualitative information. It means asking the right questions of the right people; and listening to the answers they, and the data tell you.


transitive verb: to determine the significance, worth, or condition of usually by careful appraisal and study

Evaluation means understanding the story behind the data you’ve gathered; analyzing the real story of what the data tells you, not the story you want to see.

Sure,  fundraising revenue from a long-standing fundraising channel is revenue that is critical to the organization’s budget and ability to deliver mission. But, without asking the tough questions about that goal, the organization often finds themselves on the nonprofit treadmill; vigorously working up a sweat but going nowhere.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” – Steven Covey

  • The Main Thing – prioritize, and then stay focused, and act on the priority
  • The Essentials – do less but do it better
  • The Vital Few (Pareto Principal) – 80% of your results will come from 20% of your work

This makes all the sense in the world. So why is it so hard to do it?

There are a few causes that drag us back on to that nonprofit treadmill; the endless cycle of the trivial many that gets us nowhere.

Confirmation Bias


Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.

As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.

Consider that beloved fundraising event. It’s been going on for decades and the board thinks it’s awesome. Their argument? “People love it and it’s a great way to introduce new people to the organization.”

Year over year the fundraising staff, executive director and board talk about ways to increase the revenue of their beloved event. However, upon deeper exploration and evaluation (looking) at a ten year period, the data shows that participation numbers haven’t increased, revenue has been flat, and new donors to the event don’t give again. Furthermore, it’s  only 7% of the overall fundraising revenue but takes 6 of the 10 staff people months to plan, market and implement the event.

Is this event essential and relevant?

Unfortunately, more often than not, the organization will think it is and only see the data they want (funds in the bank), rather than evidence and data that tells a different story (poor ROI). When asked the tough questions, they rationalize answers to support their beliefs, belays their fears, and the event continues.

I first read about the next reason in the book Essentialism – and I have done some further research to understand why nonprofits hang on so desperately to goals, even when they’ve accepted the data says to do otherwise.

Sunk Cost Bias

From Wikipedia:

Economists and behavioral scientists use a related term, sunk-cost fallacy, to describe the justification of increased investment of money, time, lives, etc. in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment (“sunk cost”) despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, beginning immediately, of continuing the decision outweighs the expected benefit.

Take the Capital Campaign with a fundraising goal that increased over the span of eight years. The money raised had mostly been from the organization’s own reserves and the fundraising had stalled from the very beginning. Then, disaster struck; almost overnight, the project estimate grew almost 30% and the fundraising goal became clearly out of reach. On top of that, the needs the organization had been serving when they started the campaign had changed (in large part because of their work, they had nearly solved the original problem) – and to their credit, they had shifted mission delivery to meet the changing needs. But the project hadn’t changed.

The question of relevance: What is the result they are trying to achieve and what is the relevant goal to achieve it?

Relevant Goal = Relevant Result.

The Endowment Effect

I also read about this concept in the book Essentialism.

Ask yourself this; if you didn’t already have a history of this fundraising channel, and given the cost of time, energy and money to do it– would you start it?

Mr. McKeown describes the endowment effect on the Tim Ferriss podcast. They start talking about it at 14:24, but I strongly recommend listening to the whole thing.

I encourage you to practice essentialism by looking at every opportunity or request that comes to you this week and asking yourself, is this essential?

If not, try saying no and see what happens. Some great ways on how to say no are in Chapter 11 of Essentialism, but you can hear them from Mr. McKeown himself on another episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast here.

Just say no (to the trivial many),


Selfies – it’s a matter of survival

Last week I was the passenger in a car traveling on Highway 2 in Washington State. We were in Tumwater Canyon on a narrow, winding stretch of road between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth. It was icy and the river that runs alongside looked cold and unforgiving.

As we rounded a corner, I saw three middle-aged men standing on the river side pointing across the road and up the steep hill. I looked up, what could it be? There had to be something very interesting for them to stand in such a dangerous spot at the side of the road.

I didn’t see anything but trees and brush and snow.

As we passed them, I saw that one of them had his phone held up; in the hand that I thought had been pointing at something.

They were taking a selfie.

As a human species, we’ve always had a fascination with documenting our experiences with pictures – from cave paintings to the family vacation slide show, to social media posts.

I’ve spent a great deal of the last six months thinking, learning and acting on the impact of storytelling – from how it connects and drives us, as you can read about in this post; to its practical application in fundraising as I shared in my blog post here.

In the past, the sight of three grown men risking injury on the side of the road to take a smiling selfie with the river and snow behind them would have flabbergasted me. “WTF are they thinking?!” I would have said to myself.

This time, it really struck home that the selfie is  another tool we use in our need to tell stories. As a Gen-Xer with millennial and Gen-Z children, I used to get annoyed and shake my head with all the selfies (so many selfies).

However, after more thought, rather than admonish or judge the “young people” (and the middle aged men) who are taking selfies; we need to start understanding that this behavior is driven by a far more ancient and meaningful need – the need to tell our stories.

When we tell out stories, we learn, we teach, we grow and we share so that we belong. It’s survival folks.

So, take those selfies and feel confident in the knowledge that you are doing something you are wired to do to survive. Also, for the sake of survival, please don’t stand on the side of a dangerous stretch of highway when you do it.