It’s the Data, Stupid! Why Your Organization’s Database is Your Most Important Development Tool

We all know the story of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. While, early on, Bush was considered virtually unbeatable, Clinton’s campaign chose to address an issue that Bush Sr. had ignored, and “It’s the economy, stupid” became a catch phrase.

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 qualifies the data manager as low-level clerical staff.

Just imagine 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 to have her deceased husband’s name removed from the mailing list – and she just received a newsletter in his name?

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, yes, 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.

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.

About the author: Pamela Grow is a consultant, assisting nonprofit organizations with proposal development, prospect research, annual appeal strategies and communication planning and is the author of “Five Days to Foundation Grants.” Check out her weekly blog, “Towards Effective Nonprofit Writing” and join her Facebook group, Tools for the One Person Development Office.

Photo credit: Adam and Rob