New Year’s resolution: Is your data in order?
Posted on: January 13, 2015 at 10:51 am

By Joyce Penland,CFRE

“You’re only as good as your data.”

We in the fundraising profession have heard this statement repeatedly…whether at conferences or through newsletters and, frankly, we know it’s true.  We know that we can’t reach out to donors, former donors, and prospective donors for support if we don’t have accurate data about them.

Too often we think that talking about our data, or having meetings with staff about data management is “boring.”  But the truth is we should think about our data as pure gold.  Marion Lee, a principal at Bacon Lee & Associates, said, “A nonprofit organization has its facility, its people, and its data.  We know the first two are important, but too often the data on our donors is undervalued.”

For fundraisers, “good data” includes the basics of name, address, phone(s), email and the amount/purpose for all gifts given to the organization.  Savvy fundraisers know that other important data to record about donors includes “contact preferences” and “relationships” as well as “gifts to other nonprofits” and the list goes on.

Recently I talked with a new development director who was frustrated by her organization’s lack of good, reliable information on donors.  She said that her nonprofit kept its donor information on an Excel spreadsheet (entered by FIRST name) and the group’s historical giving data extended back only three years.   I assured her that we at Bacon Lee & Associates have had many clients in the same boat with insubstantial data and no system beyond Excel to manage it.  But even with these challenges, we recommend these simple steps to get your data in order.

  1.  Work on your current donor files first.  Make sure their information is as accurate and up-to-date as possible.  Make use of free resources to double-check the information you DO have:  White Pages, Google, etc.  If something is missing or questionable, take the time to call your donors (a good idea any time) and ask them to confirm their basic information.  For board members, development committee members, and others in your “inner circle” consider sending/emailing an annual update form requesting their help to keep your data current.
  2.  For former donors, consider segmenting this group and target the largest lapsed donors to research first.  If you’re a one-person shop, make it a goal to research five lapsed donors a week to keep the list manageable.  Your lapsed donors have shown that they once cared enough to support your organization; so doing research to get these folks back in the “giving” category is worthwhile.
  3.  Adding prospective donors to your database requires that you put good information into your system from the very start.  A former colleague and database guru often intoned, “If you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out.”  Wise words.  Start by visiting the websites of organizations like your own to see if they have posted donor honor rolls or recognition lists.  Share the lists with your board members to see if they can help you make contact with these prospects.  Ask your current board members on the update form (above) to recommend 5-10 prospective donors each year and provide space on the form for their contact information.  Include the line:  “Yes, I will assist you in reaching out to this prospect.”

While these steps are simple, it is essential to keep your data as accurate and current as possible.

Because most of us are both fundraisers and donors, it behooves us to take the long view.  Rather than becoming upset because a nonprofit we love occasionally sends us mail or email with “bloopers” in our names or addresses, let’s take a deep breath and extend a little grace and remember that data management is an ongoing challenge for every nonprofit.