So, What’s in Your Database?

Updated: Jul 14, 2021



We have all heard many times the importance of data. With large companies, the term “big data” is often used. Businesses use data to market to their customers, to target sales toward certain demographics, and to engage buyers in multiple ways. Businesses are surely had a grand time during the pandemic with millions of people across the globe working from home, spending more time browsing the internet, shopping online, and attending scores of online meetings, conferences, and educational classes, as well as, weddings, graduations, and concerts. Even Hamilton was streamed online! This trend is continuing, but at a slower pace.


Nonprofits have also seen a surge in online giving, partially fueled by the pivoting to virtual events. It has been truly amazing the variety of events being successfully implemented online from 5K runs to gala silent auctions. Donors can stay home in their sweats or dress elegantly and participate.


For nonprofits, having good data is an important step to raising money and retaining donors. The virtual events are bringing in new donors, involving current donors, and raising money. That is all new data.


Data Collection


All nonprofits have data, but not all nonprofits have a well-designed plan to collect, store, and use their data. A business will often refer to this as a “data governance plan,” while nonprofits most often refer to “donor management policies and procedures” for the collection and storage and “a fundraising plan” for the utilization of the data.


The initial step of data collection is extremely important. What information you’re your organization need to collect that will help you understand your donors and prospective donors? There are the basics: name, address, preferred phone (cell, home, business), and preferred email. Does the person have a partner? What is the contact information for the partner? Is there additional information you need to capture, such as source (how did this person come to the nonprofit’s attention).


Information is valuable if it is consistent and accurate. Donor management policies and procedures will help ensure that data entry is consistent. This is as simple as deciding whether to always use N, N., or North when entering an address. Many organizations no longer use prefixes. Pat, Leslie, and even Michael are names for both men and women. Organizations need a policy for managing this information. Data collection often requires a need for gender and cultural sensitivity.


Beyond the basics, an organization needs to determine what additional information will be captured. A private school might want to know if the donor is a grandparent of a current student or alumni. Social service organizations provide a multitude of services. The organization might want to know if the donor is interested in the clothing drive, medical care, or providing meals. The goal is to capture information that helps engage the donor and then provide opportunities for donors to support what is important to them.


The final area of major concern is data related to the donor’s transaction. The transaction could be a straightforward donation, participation at an event, or a multi-year pledge. Each of these has special considerations which need to be taken into account and appropriately recorded. The data collection becomes even more interesting with corporate matching gifts, tribute donations, and donor advised funds. Important to all transactions is what motivated the donor to give and how they wanted the donation to be used. Accurately reflecting this information in the donor management software is essential. The nonprofit’s successful stewardship of the donor will rest upon the capture and use of these unique pieces of information.


Data Storage


A process needs to be in place to gather this information and then the organization needs the means to not only store the information, but also be able to retrieve the data so that it can be used for reports, analysis, and targeted fundraising efforts. While the days of spreadsheets are gone, it is surprising how many organizations are still using spreadsheets. It is definitely time to take a good look at a software application designed to store all the information the organization has identified as important. Having a great application will help the organization stay connected with the donor.


These two elements, gathering data and storing data, are critical to the fundraising process. A solid fundraising plan based upon measurable strategic goals is only possible with a strong, accurate, and purposeful database.


Initial steps to build a robust database:

  • Determine what data needs to be collected

  • Write donor management policies and procedures

  • Purchase donor management software

  • Have all staff trained to properly use the software utilizing the donor management policies and procedures

Once all of these items are in play, the nonprofit will need to begin analyzing their data. This is not a process that requires a Ph.D. in mathematics. It does require time, patience, and clear objectives. Your donors – past, present and future – are in your database. The goal is to know the donors’ interests and cultivate them to a successful outcome.


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