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!


Author: Aimee Sheridan

Aimee has spent the last 20 years in non-profit leadership roles; raising revenue, awareness and building community partnerships to support services that care for those in need. Aimee’s signature strength has been in working with stakeholders to create comprehensive, integrated fundraising and marketing plans. By using data driven strategies focusing and on execution toward the goals, she has been able to help organizations increase their revenue because they are working on the right activities as part of the plan.

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