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The 7 Biggest Mistakes in Handling Donor Data

MFG Archive, Opinion

In our latest viewpoints, GuideStar USA outlines the seven most common mistakes in handling donor data - and how you can avoid them.


So much is written every month in various nonprofit publications and blog posts regarding the insights and best practices revolving around fundraising. Virtually all of them are truly insightful and can lead to greater successes.


However, just a few mistakes here and there in the handling of your data can easily decrease your fundraising totals by decreasing your communication effectiveness, or worse yet, harming the delicate relationships being built with your donors!


What type of mistakes could cause such dastardly outcomes?


Grab a notepad, so you can mark down if you should check on these seven common mistakes in your fundraising database/CRM, and begin reading below.


Here are the seven biggest mistakes we have seen over multiple decades of helping nonprofits with technology:


Mistake One – Assuming Data Entry/Gift Entry Needs No Guidelines


This one is huge! Time after time, as we help even large and well known charities convert their data to new systems, we can see almost to the exact week where changes in staff involved with data entry occurred.


All of sudden new coding structures were used or notes started to be found in strange places, or worse yet, critical data elements were never entered or transferred from other systems any more.


This could all have been eliminated with:


  • Creation of procedural guidelines
  • Basic training for new staff
  • Reporting checks and balances


Mistake Two – Never or Seldom Running an NCOA Update


NCOA is the abbreviation for National Change of Address. This is a simple and economical way to update all of the addresses in your database so they are:


  • Current
  • Usable by the Postal Service
  • In the proper format for bulk mailing discounts


The average person in the United States changes their address once every seven years. Yes, you read that correctly, if you do not utilize the NCOA process then most of your database will not be mail ready in just seven years!


Depending on the number of times you mail annually, this process should be run once per year, if not quarterly. Just the dollars lost from donations missed  should more than cover the expense of an NCOA in most cases.


Mistake Three – No Recording of Personal Donor Interactions


Most nonprofits engaged in fundraising do a good job of recording mailings or email blasts sent as well as entering financial transactions, but many never keep the details of personal donor interactions.


Here are a few that are often missed which can lead to lost revenue generating opportunities and little or no building of deep relationships:


  • No details of a phone call with the donor
  • No storage of email conversations
  • No notes from personal visits
  • Not saving a copy of personalized thank you letters


Please think about how far behind other charities working with your donor you are when they have this information over the years and you do not. This can be a real game changer in relationship building and thereby funding your mission.


Mistake Four – Not Backing Up Your Data and TESTING Your Back-up


Hopefully, many of you reading this post are already using cloud-based CRM solutions from dedicated suppliers who perform this vital function multiple times a week or day. Pat yourself on your back, you made a wise decision and can now relax confidently about the security of your data!


For the vast majority of charities working with donors this is not done regularly. Then, even if the back up is done, an even a smaller percentage test to verify the back up is usable.


(I once surveyed a conference center of over 500 customers about doing daily back ups and around 60% admitted they did not do it daily. When asked how many had tested the back up in the last 30 days less than 5% responded with a yes!)


What happens if you lose all of this precious data?


Mistake Five – Never Cleaning Up Your Data


Just like a closet in your home or the car you drive, daily use and misuse can create data errors.   Even without a single data entry mistake over 2-3 years, you will find codes that are no longer being used or the need to add new items.


Just think about what has been added to donor databases in the last 10-15 years by most every nonprofit:

  • Email addresses
  • Pinterest and Twitter handles
  • Facebook and LinkedIn URLs
  • Pictures
  • Video thank you’s
  • Donor advised fund accounts
  • Peer to Peer fundraising details
  • Communication preferences


Will there 5-10 more new items to keep track of in the next 10-15 years?  The answer is a resounding yes!


Cleaning your data can be as simple as spot checking or can be more complete by running key reports to make sure data is aligned and up to date. In most cases a 3rd party audit by a consultant is money well spent.


Mistake Six – Not Taking Advantage of Data Append Services


Whether you are using a spreadsheet or a commercial donor management solution like Bloomerang there are numerous data append services, which go beyond NCOA updates.


These services can fill in many gaps in your data and make your communication practices much more effective. Here are a few that come to mind you might consider:

  • Telephone number append
  • Email address append
  • Social media handle append
  • Mailing address append
  • Prospect research information such as:
  • Gifts to other charities
  • Net Worth
  • Relationships to others
  • Newsworthy information
  • Asset ownership

Think about how useful any of the above could be for your fundraising and communication efforts.


Mistake Seven – Not Integrating Key Systems in Your Organization


In this day and age of cloud based applications or even older applications claiming to have robust API’s (Application Programming Interfaces) there is no reason for double and triple entering of the same or similar data.


This can eliminate many of the errors mentioned above in # 5 and even in #1.


Often this is just a matter of asking or in some cases insisting that your systems talk with each other. There is no need, for instance, for your email system or your peer to peer fundraising system to not exchange data in real time with your fundraising database/CRM.


Achieving these integrations, not only eliminates errors and clean up, but allows many more productive activities to take place!


Did you fill your notepad as you were reading this? Would you like more information and guidance?  Here is a brand new guide, which can build upon what we have covered above.


If you can eliminate the seven biggest mistakes outlined here, you and your team will be headed for better donor relationships, budget cost savings and higher levels of fundraising success!


Many thanks to GuideStar USA for this blogpost, which was originally featured on the GuideStar blog.


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