I worked in fundraising for ten years. I spent the first 2 ½ years of that time working on an MA in Philanthropic Studies, MPA in Nonprofit Management and a Certificate in Social Entrepreneurship. I spent the next seven and a half years working as frontline fundraiser/gift officer in higher education and youth-serving organizations.

While I may not be anything special, I like to think that I learned a thing or two over the years.

One thing that I surprisingly never learned about was my most important fundraising tool: the donor database.

If you are reading this and you have ever worked in fundraising, you most likely have experienced the same thing. Like myself, you probably never took part in a formal training program for your databases. You probably never even took a single class dedicated to teach you the fundamentals of your database. You also most assuredly have had any input on the layout of your database and the type of information it can produce for you.

We inherit the database of our predecessor. We get almost no say on what it produces or its designed. We get little to no training on how to use a database.

What this amounts to is simple: Thousands of fundraisers and their teams stumbling around their database like a blind pig hoping to find a truffle buried in the forest.

Can anybody really say they know how to utilize their database fully?

I recently looked back and took an honest look at my time as a fundraiser to consider what I wish I had in my databases, what I could have cared less about, and what I never knew I needed.

Here are my thoughts.

What I wish I had in my database when I was a fundraiser:

  • Easy and simple to use: When you struggle every day navigating your database and spend an extra 1-5 hours a week dealing with a cumbersome database you begin to dream of an easy to use database.
  • Intuitive Reporting: How many times have you run a report, only to come up with different numbers every time you run it? That was me. I longed for a reporting tool that did not require an advanced degree to use or was beyond my capacity. I’m not incapable of running a report or building a complex query, but sometimes enough is enough. I once asked for a report from our database manager that ended up taking her 10 hours to build and compile.
  • Integrated online giving forms: If your database is not connected to your online giving form and the gift information does not automatically flow into your database when a gift is made online, then what’s the point? Going beyond just integrated online giving forms, I wanted my database to streamline some of my day to day activities (gift entry, donor acknowledgment, reporting, etc.) so that I could focus on more important things.

What I couldn’t have cared less about in a database when I was a fundraiser:

  • Detailed contact report functionality: The last database I used (an industry behemoth) was so cumbersome I could barely stand it. If I remember correctly, I had to fill out almost a dozen fields on three different screens to fill out a contact report. Really? The complexity ultimately resulted in inconsistency across my department. Even with guidance, everybody filled out the contact reports differently, and it made it impossible to make any  accurate comparisons.
  • The all-in-one database: The phrase “jack of all trades and master of none” applies to databases as much as it does to people. I’ve used databases that did everything, but ultimately did nothing well. As a result, I was always frustrated with my database.

What I never knew I needed in a database when I was a fundraiser:

  • Free training: Up until a couple of years ago I just assumed that if you wanted to have database training, it was going to be a costly and time-consuming endeavor. With high staff turnover, I never worked for an organization that could afford to train all of its staff on their database. Yikes! An organization’s database is at the heart of its fundraising operation and is a fundraiser’s most important tool. It would be like sending a carpenter to build a house without teaching him how to use a saw. Luckily, some databases prioritize teaching their users how to effectively use the system over making a little extra money.
  • An integrated email system: Let’s talk fundraising nightmares. I once had a fundraising email get sent to the same group of people five times. We eventually figured out that the email list got uploaded into the system five times and the system was not smart enough to only send one email per email address. I didn’t know this at the time, but this would have been avoided if my email tool was directly integrated with my database, so I didn’t have to worry about uploading lists. On top of eliminating the need to constantly update an email list in a separate email tool, having your email system directly integrated with your database will make it possible to track all email communications much more efficiently. You can capture on a donor’s record if they open an email, unsubscribes, or if any links are clicked. Imagine running a report at the end of your fiscal year to get a report of everyone who clicked on a donate link in one of your emails but has not yet made a gift this year. You can’t do that in an off-the-shelf email system.
  • A way to look at donor engagement other than giving history and contact reports: Have you ever visited a donor only to realize that you grossly overestimated their level of interest in your organization? I’ve been there many times and it’s no fun. I used to make a guess, albeit educated guesses, about how engaged a donor was with my organization. For example, I would open a record and see that they have given in the last two year. Next, I might see in their record that they are a volunteer and remember that they signed up to attend an event. Finally, I might check to see if they have an email address in our system and assume that since we are sending them emails, they must be reading them. If you put all of that together and you would expect that person to be pretty engaged and would be ready to be asked to increase their giving. In reality, things could be very different than they appear. Perhaps they decreased their giving over the last two years, haven’t volunteered in three years, never attended the event they signed up for, and unsubscribed from our email list. After, having a database that tells me exactly how engaged and how connected someone is to my organization, I don’t think I could ever go back.
  • In my face reminders of my progress on my goals: Donor retention! We all talk about it, but in reality, don’t do much to improve it. Everywhere I ever raised money, we would measure donor retention only once a year. We would crunch the number (if we could even agree on how to calculate it – no joke) at the end of the fiscal year and just hope that the number went up. We always talk about improving our donor retention, but you can’t improve anything if you only measure it once a year. Can you imagine an Olympic runner only measuring her times once ever four years during the gold medal race? Of course not. But that’s what I was doing with donor retention. Not because I didn’t want to measure it, but because it is a difficult and time-consuming thing to calculate. It’s not something you can do everyday or even every week. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed a database that was going to calculate retention, and other key metrics, for me and throw those number in my face every day.
  • Accounting Software Integration: I used to watch a colleague of mine spend an hour or two each week with our CFO reconciling what we had in our donor database with our accounting software. This was an absolutely necessary task that could have taken a 10th of the time if we had a database and accounting software with a true backend integration.

What’s on your database wish-list? Disagree with any of mine? Let me know in the comments below!

The Buyer's Guide to Fundraising Software

Bryan Roesler

Bryan Roesler

Owner + Grant Writer at Quill Consulting, LLC
Bryan Roesler has an M.A. in Philanthropic Studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and an MPA in Nonprofit Management from the O’Neill School for Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. He spent his career fundraising for large teams, including Boy Scouts of America – Crossroads of America Council and Wabash College. Now he is co-owner of Quill Consulting LLC with his partner in life and partner in business, Ashleigh Graves-Roesler. Quill provides wrap-around grant writing support (from research to reporting) for small and mid-size nonprofits.