Field Notes

Leveraging Donor Data: Four Common Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

Jeff Gordy addresses the pitfalls that nonprofits can face when attempting to use donor data effectively.

Nonprofit technology is advancing rapidly, meaning that organizations are now better able to capture donor data than ever before. Not only does new technology make data capture a seamless process, but it can also provide nonprofits with a wider range of data points to draw off of when developing their donor stewardship plans.

To remain competitive in the sector, it’s increasingly necessary for organizations to have well-developed strategies in place for recording their data and utilizing it effectivelyYet many nonprofits aren’t using their data to its full capacity. They fall into some easily avoidable pitfalls, which can limit their insights into their donors and prevent them from achieving the most successful fundraising.

That’s why we’re going to discuss four of the most common mistakes that nonprofits make when leveraging donor data and give you some actionable advice on how to fix them. Here are the biggest pitfalls we’ll cover:

  1. The organization uses separate platforms for managing data.
  2. The organization’s data isn’t universally accessible.
  3. The organization doesn’t personalize their outreach.
  4. The organization doesn’t clean their data regularly.

By the time we’re done, you should be better equipped to make the most of your donor data and build stronger, longer-lasting relationships with your donors.

Pitfall #1: The organization uses separate platforms for managing data:

The mistake: One of the huge benefits to increasingly advanced nonprofit technology is that there’s now a solution out there to facilitate almost any effort your organization could imagine. While it’s undeniably good that technology can make your fundraising and stewardship more efficient, relying on too many platforms can actually hurt you. When you record data in separate platforms, you’re isolating the different donor data points you have on hand. All of the data fields available to you can’t communicate with each other to provide you with a more comprehensive picture of your donors.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a basic example:

Say your organization uses an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of basic information about your donors, event-planning software to manage your fundraising events, and an email marketing platform to facilitate your communications. These systems aren’t integrated.

You want to contact a donor to share an engagement opportunity with them. You can successfully contact them by consulting your Excel spreadsheet, but since you haven’t integrated with your other platforms, you wouldn’t be able to see:

  • That you contacted that donor over email earlier this week.
  • Whether or not that donor has historically had a warm response to email outreach.
  • That this particular donor has attended many of your fundraising events and so prefers event-related engagement opportunities and giving in an in-person setting.

Since you’re unable to personalize that donor’s experience, it will be more difficult to mobilize them to take further action with your organization.

The solution: To gain a 360º view of your supporters, your organization should find a comprehensive system for tracking all donor data. The best solution is a nonprofit donor database, which was especially designed to help nonprofits track and manage all of their donor data in one platform. And if your donor databases don’t include all of the functionalities you need, these systems can be integrated with other nonprofit software platforms so all of the donor data you collect will be filtered into one system. For more on donor databases and how they can help you achieve better fundraising, make sure to check out Neon’s buyer’s guide!

The takeaway: Using multiple platforms to record donor data will limit your insights into your donors, which will prevent your organization from developing effective stewardship plans. To customize your donor outreach, you should have a centralized system in place for tracking donor data.

Pitfall #2: The organization’s data isn’t universally accessible:

The mistake: Many organizations not only isolate their data in different platforms, but isolate it among their staff members as well. Either certain staff members only have access to the platforms that are specific to their jobs, or not everyone can access the centralized data management system. While your staff members have distinctive jobs and duties, and it might seem like they can function separately, in reality this can have a negative impact on your efforts and operations.

If not all of your staff members can access all of your data, they can’t see how their specific duties fit into your overall strategy. It will be all too easy to overlook certain tasks, double up on others, or run into other difficulties.

The solution: No matter which system you’re using to manage donor data, you should ensure that it’s universally accessible. When selecting a donor database, make sure you purchase a solution that can accommodate all the staff members on your team.

A common objection to universally accessible data is donor security. Of course, it’s important that your donors’ confidential information is available only to the staff that really need it. Luckily, if you’re using a donor database, you can set permissions to limit the number of people handling data.

The takeaway: Ensuring that your data is universally accessible will leave less room for error and allow your staff to do their jobs in the most informed way.

Pitfall #3: The organization doesn’t take the proper security measures:

The mistake: With the rise of technology and online giving, nonprofit data security guidelines are only becoming more complicated. There are security standards for nearly everything, from making online transactions to storing sensitive information on laptops to data transfer. Not to mention, legal standards are created at both a federal and state level, making them even more difficult to navigate.

That being the case, many organizations inadvertently run into data breaches. Not following security standards can cause your organization to be hit with fines or penalties. Even worse, when sensitive data is compromised, it can cause your donors to mistrust you. Without trust, your donors are far more likely to abandon your organization and you could even develop a negative reputation on a larger scale, neither of which bodes well for future fundraising efforts.

The solution: Your organization should research data security standards on both a federal and state level. Once you have a solid grasp on how data should be handled, create an internal policy that outlines how you and your staff will adhere to security standards. When everyone is informed about data security, you’ll be better able to avoid possible breaches.

The takeaway: Failure to comply with data security standards can cost your organization money, valuable donors, and your good reputation. Read up on security laws and devise a policy for how your organization will handle sensitive information to keep data safe.

Pitfall #4: The organization doesn’t clean their data regularly:

The mistake: Collecting donor data is a great first step, but if you don’t clean it regularly, your data won’t be able to live up to its full potential. Data that hasn’t been tidied up is far less likely to be accurate. Some of that data could be out-of-date, duplicated, or otherwise corrupted. And you wouldn’t even know it, since you haven’t been consciously pruning it!

Consulting inaccurate data can make it more difficult for you to get in touch with your donors and prevent you from developing the most informed stewardship strategies. Even worse, it could lead to some awkward blunders that could potentially hurt your donor relationships. Imagine sending one of your donors a personalized appeal letter asking her how her husband is, only to learn later that he passed away six months ago. Eek! The more accurate your data is, the more effective your stewardship and fundraising will be.

The solution: Your organization should set aside a time once a year to run spring cleaning. During this time, go through your donor data in full and:

  • Get rid of any duplicate records.
  • Delete any data that’s obviously obsolete.
  • Re-confirm donors’ contact information.
  • Standardize your records.

Your spring cleaning will be much less tedious if you develop standards for data entry up front. That way, not only will your data be cleaner from the start, but it will also be easier to run searches and automate many of these steps with your database. Make sure that your staff is recording each data field in the same way. It can be helpful to create a document that outlines all data entry procedures.

The takeaway:

When your data is accurate, your donor outreach is sure to be relevant and impactful. Ensure that your data is always clean and up-to-date by standardizing data entry and running an annual spring cleaning.


BonusRead Markets for Good’s article on how your organization can better utilize imperfect dataWhat pitfalls has your organization run into when leveraging your donor data? How did you address these issues? Let us know in the comments! You can also connect with Jeff Gordy on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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