Clean Donor Database: A Key to Better Fundraising


Can you use all the donor data in your database?

Is it accessible, relevant and clean?

Why not?

If you’re like a lot of development professionals, the state of your data isn’t your fault. You inherited a database from the people who came before you, who might have followed donor database best practices…or might not have. 

Perhaps you can trace the generations of development staff like the rings in a tree, as you observe different data-entry practices from the past. “Ah, yes,” you might say, “There’s Carol, with the abbreviation system she made up, and then that guy who only worked here for six months and his note-taking style, and there, in a couple of ancient entries, are notes from our founder, who quickly abandoned using the database at all.” 

Or maybe your data isn’t working for you, because it’s not all the data you actually need. If it’s limited to contact information and giving history, there’s a lot missing that could help you get to know your donors. 

It’s very easy for data to get messy. Running an annual NCOA is not going to solve most of these problems, because all it does is update address details. “Has correct addresses” is really the bare minimum you can ask of your donor database.

What does solve donor data problems? Approaching your database with several important questions:

  1. Why? 
  2. What? 
  3. How?  
  4. What now?

Why Are We Collecting This Donor Data?

Every piece of data should have an intended purpose.  This purpose can be simple, as in, “We need donors’ names so we can address them correctly. We need their contact information so we can send them communications.” It can also be more complex, like, “We need to know a donor’s giving history in order to create an appropriate ask,” or  “We need our donors’ communication preferences so we don’t alienate them.” 

Make sure you know why you’re collecting information. And the reason “because that’s what we’ve always done” cannot be the why. Make sure that the information you’re listening for directly impacts an initiative, program or engagement strategy. This will ensure that your database is built to be useful, instead of as a collection bin. 

What Do We Want To Know?

Your database came with fields to fill out, but those aren’t the be-all and end-all of data collection. Think about what you’d like to know about the human beings who give to you. What would be useful?

In addition to all the standard contact info and giving history, if I were running a development department, I’d want to know things like:

  • Which programs are most significant to this donor?
  • Does the donor have a personal connection to the cause or organization?
  • What are the donor’s relationships within our community?
  • Has this donor made any complaints or expressed any concerns?
  • Does the donor have a particular passion or interest? 

You can add these things to your records’ notes, of course, but if your nonprofit CRM allows you to customize fields, like Virtuous does, collecting and accessing the information you actually want is simple. 

Let’s pretend I’m running a cancer charity, and I’m getting ready to send out an appeal. If I have customized my data, I can quickly run a search to see if any of my donors have a personal connection to the cause. Suppose I discover that a group of donors attended my organization’s family support groups. When I check out those individual records, I find in the notes that six of them have recently lost the family member that connected them with the organization. 

Now, I can be a responsive human being, instead of treating my donors like one mass group. Instead of sending bereaved donors the same message as the general donor community, which would probably make them feel both bad and anonymous, I can remove them from the appeal. Instead of sending a message that tells them they’re not an individual and the organization doesn’t know them, I can make sure I’ve sent a condolence note. Like a person, instead of a faceless institution, I can offer a connection. 

Adding this kind of information to your database helps you offer a one-on-one, personalized donor journey to everyone in your database. It makes targeting communications easier and prevents unfortunate oversights. It makes your supporters into human beings, instead of a collection of data fields. 

How Are We Going to Manage Donor Data?

Your data is like your house. While spring cleaning will probably always be necessary, day-to-day you can avoid a lot of work just by not letting the mess get too big to begin with. If you establish best practices and rules for your donor database, there will ultimately be fewer messes to clean up. 

Who Enters Data?

Limiting the number of people who enter data into the database simplifies the process automatically. It’s fine to allow access to your database on a need-to-use basis. However,  I recommend allowing anyone with direct donor contact at least some access, simply to avoid redundancy and bottlenecks. It’s easier if everyone can log their own donor communications and interactions, as long as they’re all following the same rules. 

What are the Rules?

If you establish rules for data entry, your data will be tidier, more usable, and won’t lead you to send me an annual appeal addressed to me, except with my spouse’s last name. 

Calling all “Type A” process-geeks, this is the stuff you live for! Decide and document how you want names, titles, addresses, and details entered. Standardize all abbreviations, like those used in addresses. Do you want “Apt. #313,” or “#313,” or “Apartment 313?” As long as you’re following basic grammar and common sense, there’s no wrong answer, just make sure it’s the same across your database. Your mail merges are going to be so much easier this way.

When Do We Update?

That contact information may be basic, but it still has to be correct. That annual NCOA isn’t glamorous, but it is necessary. Sadly, some donors will drift away from your organization and stop giving, and others will die. After a certain point, there’s no reason to keep departed donors in your database.  Decide on a schedule for updating and purging old records. Some experts recommend purging record if the donor hasn’t given in two years, others five. Decide on what makes you most comfortable, but don’t let decades of donor data clutter up your nonprofit’s database. 

What Now? Return To Your Donor Data

Ultimately, you use your donor database to make decisions. That’s why it’s so important that it’s up-to-date and accurate. The point of having all that donor data is to give you a picture of each donor. Knowing those details helps you to be responsive to their needs and interests. 

The saying, “data beats opinion” isn’t 100% true (your intuition is worth something), but it points to a greater truth: Without data, it’s very easy to believe wrong things. Believing wrong things causes you to take the wrong actions, with bad results for your nonprofit. You might assume that donors care about your cause for the same reason you do, so base your fundraising offers on that. Data would show you that connect with something completely different. You might even think that one method of donor acquisition is more successful than it is when data would show how things are really performing. This isn’t because you’re not smart, it’s because our brains are fantastic at showing us only what we want to see. Data prevents rose-colored glasses from taking over your marketing and fundraising. 

Your donors aren’t static—people evolve over time. This means that no matter what you think you know about your donors, you have to return to the data for insights. Something may have changed, and it’s important to stay tuned into those changes. 

Learn How to Leverage Donor Data

Ready to make your squeaky-clean donor data work for you, helping your organization raise more money and do more good? Virtuous’ webinar, Creating a Personalized Donor Journey with Virtuous will show you how to use your nonprofit CRM to create scalable personalized giving experiences to each of your donors. 

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