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What Exactly Does "Clean" Nonprofit Data Look Like?

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Admit it. At one point in your life the phrase “clean data” didn’t mean anything to you. Honestly, I still think of numbers in a bubble bath every time I hear it. (Now you will, too!)

The good news is that the term “clean data” involves short, pronounceable words and is reasonably self-explanatory. Unfortunately, “reasonably self explanatory” isn’t super helpful if you’re imagining numbers in a bathtub. Trust me.

Words to associate with “clean data”

  • Accurate
  • Complete
  • Consistent
  • Organized

Think of it like this

You’re a nonprofit, and you’ve been tracking data from donations, events, and programs for a few (or 20) years in spreadsheets. Now you’re ready to commit to a donor management system, and the salesperson asks you about how how clean your data is.

Appropriate response to this question: Deer in headlights.

But here’s what the salesperson’s actually asking: To what degree is your data accurate, complete, consistent, and organized?

How do you know if your data is accurate?

How have you tracked first and last names? Titles? Email and mailing addresses? How about phone numbers? Do you know if that number is home, work, or mobile?

Let’s consider the mailing address part.

Say we know all your addresses are home addresses. How have you tracked them? Are street, city, state, and ZIP each in their own box in our spreadsheet? Are you consistent in how you handle abbreviations (Street vs. St.)? Are you missing information about states? Again, are you consistent in your state entries (Indiana vs. IN)? What about apartment numbers? Do you even know that our donor still lives at this address?!

Here’s a look at what clean data on a name and home address might look like


Notice the NULL value? That means there’s no data available for that particular field. And that’s okay! Your data probably won’t be perfect. The more accurate, complete, consistent, and organized, the better. But it’s a sliding scale.

Keep in mind that this example only covers name and home address. You’re going to want to include email addresses and phone numbers and perhaps board member or volunteer status and the like. And then there are the actual transactions. Same rules apply: accurate, complete, consistent, organized.

Clean nonprofit data is your ally

Clean data will make your life easier, and it’ll keep your database in good shape (yay!). The alternative to clean data isn’t all that unlike plaque build-up in your arteries (boo!). A little bit might not be a big deal, but that’s really not something you want to ignore because some day it might really matter.

But that’s going to be so much work!

Yes, it probably is. Organizing and fact checking and updating, updating, updating is going to be a pain. I will not lie. It’s a lot of work. But I promise you that it will not be easier to tackle after you’ve added another year of data gathering to the pile.

Clean it up now. Even if you’re not looking for a donor database, do yourself and your organization a favor and start getting that information together.

That way, when it does come time to upgrade your donor management from a system of spreadsheets to a database, you can relax because you’ve totally got this data thing under control.

After all, it’s just a bunch of numbers in a bubble bath.

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  • Nikki McCarthy

    So how do you actually clean it up. Are there some recommendations or best practices and where to start?
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