Picture this scenario: Two weeks into my position as dedicated Grant Writer for a mid-sized nonprofit, I’m drafted to write the agency’s annual Mother’s Day appeal. Thanks to the timing (Mother’s Day is the following week), there’s no time to lose. The organization’s database, a perfectly serviceable solution under normal circumstances, hasn’t been updated in over three years and the contract has lapsed. 

ExcelSomehow, through some sort of tortuous maneuvers, the data has been manipulated into Excel and I’ve been tasked with the job of completing the entire mail merge of thousands of letters.

It’s a struggle.

“What’s the matter?” the events coordinator asks, noticing my angst, “Haven’t you ever used Excel before?”

“Sure,” I respond. “I’m very familiar with Excel. But it’s not a database and I’ve never used it as one.”

Nonprofit development is, by its very nature, data driven.

Yet it is rare that an organization gives more than lip service to its database. Databases are often selected solely on the basis of price. Staff is given little to no training on software. Entry policies are never established. No one is given ownership of the database – or the organization shoves off the responsibility of managing the database to an underpaid clerical staffer.

If you’ve worked in the industry for any length of time, particularly with smaller nonprofit organizations, you’ve probably witnessed the following scenarios:

  • You’ve just received a donation from a contributor who notes that she would like her gift to be allocated to a specific program – and you have no record of the existence of this program.
  • You’ve located that “perfect fit” foundation, spent three weeks crafting your proposal, sent it off with high hopes…and later learned that the foundation HAD funded your organization three years ago, kept no record, and failed to follow through with a final report. (Did I mention that you are the third development director in three years and files are nonexistent?)
  • You’ve just fielded a call from an irate regular donor of thirty years, vowing to never contribute again because she has phoned three times in the past two years to have her deceased husband’s name removed from the mailing list – and she just received a newsletter addressed to him.
  • You’re unable to track how well your Fall Appeal did – because the proper coding was never created in the donor database to track it.

I have encountered these horror stories and worse, in a wide variety of nonprofit organizations.

An organization’s best campaign will fall on deaf ears if donors have given up on your organization in frustration over poor record keeping.

And, while employee attrition probably plays a large role in the problem, it’s clear that selecting the appropriate database, thoroughly training staff and developing firm policies for data entry from the start, and recognizing the long-term value of maintaining the integrity of your data will alleviate many of these problems down the road.

From the smallest organization to the largest, written protocols should be established early on setting forth the most exhaustive details – from your organization’s salutation standards, to who signs thank you letters – and regularly tweaked (and always put in writing).

  • What salutation style does your organization prefer? First name or Mr./Ms./Mrs.? Ampersand or “and”?
  • How do you handle deceased records?
  • How are the grant files maintained?
  • Do you use a separate database for tracking grants?
  • What is the turnaround time for gift acknowledgement? One week? Two?
  • Who places thank you phone calls? When and why?
  • How are email addresses collected and entered?

When deciding upon a donor database, is price your only criteria (I sincerely hope not!)?

Once you have a database in place, is your organization recognizing the value of proper maintenance, including training and the hiring of a qualified database manager?

Raisers Edge can be the Cadillac of donor databases – or an Edsel, depending on how many people have had their hands in it and how badly folks have mucked up the coding.

And Excel is not a database. It is a spreadsheet. If you’re keeping your records in Excel, you’re in for some problems down the road.

Development is, by nature, data-driven. Pay attention to the details, now and on a consistent basis, and the capital campaign your organization runs ten years from now will function seamlessly.

Pamela Grow
Pamela Grow is publisher of The Grow Report, a weekly enewsletter focused on providing donor-centered fundraising tips to small nonprofit development and marketing shops. She's the founder of Simple Development Systems, a group coaching system for small nonprofit organizations, and the author of Five Days to Foundation Grants.