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How to Get the Greatest Impact from Your Donor Database

Avatar of Pulse Marketing By Pulse Marketing

Maine is filled with amazing nonprofit organizations, making a huge positive impact in our communities. This month, I invited some experts in the field to share their perspectives on effective nonprofit marketing.

Karen Schaller is an independent database consultant in the Bangor area. For over a decade, she has been helping nonprofits optimize their campaign efforts by better utilizing their fundraising software. Karen shares some words of wisdom this week about how nonprofit professionals can make the best use of their donor databases.

“Many expressions have been used to describe the donor database: ‘scary,’ ‘tedious,’ ‘a nightmare’ – you get the idea, and I’m sure you can add to this list. That said, though, imagine defining your database as ‘effective,’ ‘valuable,’ ‘reliable,’ even ‘fun’ (okay, that’s probably going too far unless you’re unusual like me).  The point is, your database can be effective and it’s not necessary to endure these negative emotions when you get anywhere near it.

Here are two important points for creating and maintaining a donor database to support your development and fundraising efforts.

Number 1 – Get the right person(s) for the job.
As a development professional, you need good data to do your job. That means you need a good data-entry person: a valued member of the team who understands the reasons for entering various types of information, with an aptitude for detail – in other words, someone naturally motivated to be thorough and consistent. Define the data-entry position clearly, and hire to that definition. If you assign database maintenance to someone hired for another purpose, or if you don’t train your staff to use the database, you’re more likely to find errors and inconsistencies in your data.

Also, consider pay level when defining the data-entry position.  Database maintenance requires a certain level of skill, motivation, and value, and the rate of pay should reflect an appropriate degree of expectation.

Number 2 – The software is only as good as the data.
No software, regardless of its complexity, cost, or reputation, will magically give you the information you need if the data is missing or entered inconsistently. It’s important to understand the functional definitions of your database fields to systematically name the data you enter.

Example A: Accurate coding of gifts is critical to analyzing your fundraising results. To define your organization’s campaigns, funds, and appeals, and to be sure they’re applied correctly to every gift, it’s important to understand what the terms ‘campaign,’ ‘fund,’ and ‘appeal’ represent in your database. Without grasping the specific purpose behind each term, you won’t be able to use them correctly when coding your gifts.

Imagine having some gifts applied to the Annual Campaign with an appeal of Appeal Letter Fall, while other gifts are applied to a Fall Mailing Campaign with the appeal left blank. Discrepancies like this will significantly impact your ability to generate accurate reports – on both overall campaign efforts and the individual solicitations that bring money into those efforts. To avoid this confusion, create a visual coding chart explaining the relationship between your campaigns, funds, and appeals.

Use this chart as a data entry guide. If an appeal is clearly defined as a solicitation within a campaign, for example, both of the above gifts should have the same coding: Annual Campaign and Appeal Letter Fall.

Example B: Use good naming conventions so that codes representing associated data will all sort together. For instance, we might verbally use board member attribute codes like Current Board or Past Board. However, this format puts the two codes in different places on an alphabetical database list. It also leaves room for duplicate coding errors, such as creating Former Board as a new code because the coder didn’t see the Past Board option further down the list.

For well-organized data, use a consistent structure, like Board Current and Board Past, to group related codes and make things easier to find. Compare the two columns of attributes below. The formatting approach on the right creates a much more uniform coding system which, if applied throughout your database, will make your data more user-friendly.

2012 5K5K Runner 2011
5K 2011 runner5K Runner 2012
5-K Run volunteer5K Volunteer 2011
Address is missing5K Volunteer 2012
AdvisorAdvisor Current
Board HouseholdAdvisor Past
Current BoardBoard Current
Current VolunteerBoard Household
Former AdvisorBoard Past
Incomplete addressMail-1x Year Fall
Past BoardMail-1x Year Spring
Past VolunteerMail-Address Incomplete
Research addressMail-Address Research
Volunteer 5kVolunteer Current
Wants one mailing in the fallVolunteer Past

Your database doesn’t have to be a monster! When you understand its function and terminology, and maintain consistent data, it can be a valuable tool. A well-maintained database not only keeps information easy to find and interpret – it saves you time and energy.”

You can learn more about Karen Schaller and her work at

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