It’s Time We Had the Talk About Data Hygiene

Have you heard? Data science is sexy.

No, really! Harvard Business Review called Data Science “the sexiest job of the 21st century.”

Now, when thinking about data scientists, most people are probably envisioning this:


Or maybe this:


Heck, maybe you’re into the classics:


But the truth is, while data science may be sexy, it — like so many other things — isn’t really as glamorous as it seems in the movies. Most of the time it involves staring at endless reports and spreadsheets like something more like this:


And I’m here to talk to you today about another decidedly un-sexy part of data science. I’m sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, but you are a growing nonprofit, acquiring new donors all the time, and you’re going to start noticing some new challenges. As you grow, it will be harder to know all of your donors personally. Keeping contact data up-to-date, tracking seasonal addresses and family members’ names, birthdays, anniversaries, and everything else will require you to depend more and more on your donor database. So it’s time we had The Talk.

Yes, it’s time for us to talk about data hygiene.

Now, I know that you already know it’s important to keep your data clean. Obviously, clean data makes a big difference when sending out mailings. After all, you will have a hard time getting people to attend your events or respond to solicitations if you send out mail addressed like this:

President and MRs. Bob Orama 16 Pencilvania Street Washington, DE 2050

Instead of:

President and Mrs. Barack Obama 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Washington, DC 20500

But while you may be all too aware of the perils of dirty data, do you know how to prevent it in the first place?

But I run an NCOA update on my database every year!” you say.

And, hey, that’s great. Chances are, you work with a direct mail vendor that requires you to do regular National Change of Address updates as part of your contract. Or you run an NCOA through your donor database. This is good.

But saying “My data is great, I run an NCOA on my data,” is a bit like saying to Tim Gunn, “I’m well-dressed, I tied my shoes this morning.” You’re really bragging about the bare minimum. That’s not to say running periodical NCOA updates isn’t necessary.  You’re obviously not well-dressed if you can’t keep your shoes on your feet. But there’s more to it than that.

Instead, take a good hard look at some of your internal data policies and procedures.

Ask some questions, like:

  • Who enters new contacts into the database?
  • Who enters new gifts into the database?
  • How many users have permissions that allow them to enter, edit, or delete data?
  • How often is data hand-keyed into the system, as opposed to importing from other sources?
  • How often do you scan your database for duplicate records?

Answers to these questions can help you an analyzing your current data policies to see if they are helping or hurting the cleanliness of your data. For example, if everyone who uses your database has the ability to enter new contacts and gifts, you have a greater chance of creating duplicates or at least ending up with sloppy data. Determine who should be your data admins, and restrict access for others by using the permissions settings on your CRM (if your CRM doesn’t allow for this, I happen to know of a good one that does). Fewer hands in the data entry process generally leads to fewer mistakes.

Look at your gift entry processes.

Are staff members physically typing data into your database, or are they importing gift records from bank deposit reports or online reports from your credit processor? Generally, fewer keystrokes means fewer opportunities to make a mistake, so if data is being hand-keyed, look for opportunities to automate or import gift data.

When importing, look at your CRM software to see what controls might be provided to prevent accidental creation of duplicate records. How are gifts being matched to existing constituents in your database? And when gifts are entered, are staff members able to review data for mistakes or changes, either in the import data or in a contact record? Gift entry is one of the most common actions taken to update records – make sure you are maximizing this opportunity to identify data errors and correct them as you go.

Routinely inspect your database for duplicate records.

Do staff know who to notify if they do find duplicates that should be merged? Updating data within records is important but duplicate records can be just as irksome. None of your constituents will appreciate receiving three copies of your year-end appeal letter, and they would not be pleased to receive a year-end giving statement that is missing some of their gifts. Not to mention that any detailed analysis of your donors’ giving becomes difficult if gifts could be divided between duplicate records. Make sure your admins know what data cleanup and de-duping tools are available in your database and how to use them. And communicate clearly to staff the importance of cleaning up duplicates and what to do/who to notify if they come across them.

You’re growing up. With your current trajectory, you are going to be a big, successful nonprofit before you know it. Just make sure you remember this little talk we had .

Clean data? Now that sounds sexy. Right, Ryan?


How are you fairing with data hygiene?

We’d love to know your tips and tricks for keeping things nice and tidy. Share them in the comments!

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