The most important fundraising tool you have at your disposal is your donor database. It is your organization’s history. It can tell you who your friends and most loyal supporters are. Through thick and thin it sticks with us and makes it possible for us to be effective fundraisers. It should be our best friend, but most fundraisers don’t respect it and couldn’t tell you a thing about its history.
Would use your car every day if it wasn’t consistently maintained and if you didn’t know its history? Would you drive to work in the morning if you didn’t know how much gas was in the tank or if you didn’t know if your brakes were going to work when you approach that first stop sign? That would just be reckless. Yet, many fundraisers do just that with their databases.
Nonprofits do not know how or why much of their historical data got entered into their database. They don’t regularly use data services to update old or missing email and mailing addresses. They often decide not to officially to train their staff in a database’s proper use and just hope that their database manager and other frontline fundraisers can figure it out along the way. Many even change how they enter their data and record their campaigns every couple of years. These decisions make it difficult to maintain accurate data, to understand what their data means, and to run effective historical reports.
Why do we do this? The two reasons – inconsistent leadership and money.
Inconsistent leadership is a problem that not only impacts your database, it impacts your entire organization. According to a Campbell & Company study in 2013, CDO Confidential, the average tenure of a Chief Development Officer (CDO) is unseemingly low-52%. That’s almost hard to believe. 52% of CDO’s served one to two years in their most recent position. When you couple this with the even higher turnover in the more entry-level positions, it is sometimes hard just to keep our heads above water.
I’m sure that this is not news to anyone. We’ve all been there. And it only takes a little bit of common sense to realize how this makes it more difficult for nonprofits to maintain strong donor relationships and to develop long-term fundraising strategies. But what does this mean for your database? It means that when a new CDO takes of their department, they often change their organization’s relationship with their database. There’s noting maliciouis about this, most of the time they have different ideas of what type of information they want to captured and how their internal campaigns are recorded and reported. The result? It was very difficult to maintain consistency from year to year and to have any true understanding your organizations giving history.
The second and more obvious reason is money. Almost all nonprofits have tight budgets and try to save money where they can. This can unknowingly cause a lot of problems. Among them are a constant devaluation of your database and growing inefficiencies in your department. When organizations decline to regularly use data services to update old or missing email and mail address, their data gets more and more untrustworthy each year. They lose significant amounts of money because they are unable to steward and solicit more and more of their supporters. And what do you have to do when you lose donors. You have to spend a lot of time and money to acquire new ones.
Directly connected to the money problem lies training. Many organizations spend little to no money to training their employees to use their database. Why? Because it can be expensive. This results in a bunch of untrained people muddling through complex databases without a clear understanding of the full functionality of their most valuable fundraising tool. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for a database manager who has been working with one of the more complicated donor databases (you know which ones I’m talking about) for a year or two and not be able to do anything other than basic gift entry and reporting. Reports take way to long to produce, information get recorded incorrectly or in the wrong places, and important things get missed.
I wonder how much money and time are lost because we do not keep our database updated and give people proper training.
Next time you sit down to enter a gift or to look up a donor’s record, take a minute to think about your data’s legacy. How consistent are you with your database from year to year? Is the information being entered correctly and is it even accurate? Have you trained your staff to be good stewards of their database?
It’s time to start thinking strategically about our database and treating it like any other person on your team. Maybe it means you need to take a hard look at developing a long-term plan for your database. Maybe it means you need to start fresh with a new tool. Either way, it’s time to do something.
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.