Cleaning Up a Messy Donor Database Can Boost Fundraising Results

When Amanda Zambrano started her new fundraising job in January, she inherited a database of information about donors that was in utter disarray.

The data were inconsistent, a jumble of duplicate and blank records, some containing arbitrary dollar amounts.

“I’d come across a lump gift of $5,000 that in reality might be 40 gifts spread over the course of 10 years,” says Ms. Zambrano, director of advancement at Grace Village Retirement Community, in Indiana, who was the fourth person in five years to oversee the charity’s donor records.

Haphazard databases are common at nonprofits, and the problem is an expensive one, experts say, because a bad database can hobble fundraising efforts.

When Ms. Zambrano started her job, she was new to the group and didn’t know a single donor. As a one-woman development office, without a database of reliable donor information to draw from, she was at a loss as to how to start because she had so few clues about who had been asked and who had given.

In a lot of cases, fundraisers enter information haphazardly, experts say.

“Databases become these oral-history, patchwork projects,” says Maya Gasuk, a senior consultant at West Wind Consulting Strategies in Fund Raising. “People adapt things on the fly without first really learning how to use them, and they don’t document procedures.”

Following are some tips from charity officials and consultants on how to manage and clean up messy records so they can be used to help an organization raise money and better meet the needs of its clients:

Think about how the data will be exported. This will help determine how the information should be entered in the first place, says Ms. Gasuk. For instance, she suggests standardizing how biographical data about a donor is formatted. Break up a donor’s name into multiple fields (salutation, first name, last name), which makes it easier to work with for different uses than one long string of text.

Most important, Ms. Gasuk recommends creating a unique identifier, such as a number, for each donor record if it is not automatically generated by the database software. This helps fundraisers accurately modify records and oversee large imports and exports of data.

See what exported data look like.  Export the data into a spreadsheet and make sure it’s clear what the information tells the reader, says Jane Van Ingen, a development officer at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, in New York.

“Some of the headings may make sense to the database in-putter, but not to the person you are giving the information to,” she cautions. She also recommends regularly searching for duplicate records across the entire database to see possible problems. “It’ll only tell you the most obvious errors, but it’s a start and will give you a sense of where problems are if you want to dig through,” says Ms. Van Ingen.

Clean up the records of the biggest donors first. Focus on the supporters who give the most money, says Dave Paek, a fundraising database consultant at Nonprofit Management Systems. From there, he says, work your way down to cleaning up the records of people who have given less—and perhaps cull those who have never given.

“This way, the people who do a lot for your organization will be cleaned up,” he says. “You should know what gifts they’ve made and how to address them if you were to mail something to them.”

But don’t go back more than three years, he says. In most instances, records older than that will be too messy, and it’s not worth the time.

Craft consistent definitions. For instance, everyone in the fundraising office should know what it means when a donor record indicates that the charity has had a “visit” with that donor—whether the contact was by phone or in person. Confusion over such terms means the data won’t be entered consistently.

When Sara Beinert’s staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights was cleaning up its database, the employees set aside some time every Friday morning to go over a printout of all the fields and codes they used. During those meetings, says Ms. Beinert, the center’s associate director of development for individual giving, her team hashed out the purpose of the database fields and streamlined categories.

“It was important for the three of us, who were primary users, to decide how codes were going to be used, devise new codes, and document everything we did,” she says. “We could really enforce the rules of [data] entry.”

Decide whether the database needs overall changes or updating of individual records. Uniformly changing the entire database can save time, but may introduce new errors, say experts. Records for big donors, for instance, might require a more personalized approach, says Mr. Paek.

Carol Lukemeyer, founder of the fundraising consultancy Data Sense, says that when a fundraiser makes a sweeping change, he or she should ask another person at the organization to monitor the results. The other person will get valuable training and help reduce mistakes in cleaning up the data.

Also, think about the repercussions of any overall changes made to a database for people who will use those records in the future, advises Ms. Beinert.

When her predecessor moved her organization’s gifts records to a new database, for example, it was decided to lump together each donor’s giving as one large gift. But now, as Ms. Beinert and her colleagues prepare to celebrate their organization’s 50th anniversary, they are unable to generate accurate gifts reports for longtime donors.

Get some help. Interns or volunteers can help with database cleanup. But Mr. Paek advises limiting their access so they can’t accidentally delete a major gift or an important donor’s record.

“Task them with only one thing,” he says. As a quality-control measure, he encourages frequent reporting and queries to see what updates have been made to the database while it’s being cleaned up.

Choose interns or volunteers for the these clean-up tasks who are genuinely interested in databases, Ms. Van Ingen suggests, because they will be more personally invested in the assignment. “It’s a lot of grunt work,” she says. “It can be tedious and might not seem that important, but it is.”

Store data in one central location. Some fundraising staffs turn over frequently. Keeping all of an organization’s institutional knowledge about donors or clients in one place can help improve not only fundraising efforts but also mission-related work, say experts.

At Homes for Our Troops, the charity is using a centralized donor database to manage every aspect of the organization. The charity builds specially adapted homes for severely injured military veterans, so the group has a lot of sensitive information about clients’ health and valuable information such as deeds to land. Rose Dixon, the group’s manager of annual giving and donor relations, is helping to expand the capacity of the group’s database so it can be used by people in every department.

“Every check and note that comes in the door is information that we can use,” Ms. Dixon says. “We have to have a place to store that information that is easily accessible. Having it sit in one place is very useful to us.”

The shared database will allow the organization to send out automatic reminders and action items to specific individuals and teams. “With two to three events every weekend throughout the year, it was important for us to have a system that notifies the various people when their piece of the project kicks off,” says Ms. Dixon.

Limit access to data entry. Though the entire 40-member staff of Homes for Our Troops will be able to view information in the database, Ms. Dixon serves as its “gatekeeper” and other employees will have more limited access. Every database needs someone to play that watchdog role, say experts. “You need one person who makes the changes and oversees the database and who has ultimate responsibility for how the database is used,” says Ms. Lukemeyer.

“Only a very small number of people should have administrative rights. You don’t want everybody to be able to make a new field.”

Clean up data frequently. Scouring all the records once a year is too labor-intensive and inefficient, experts say. Instead, schedule data cleanups and checks that coincide with major events in your organization’s calendar, suggests Ms. Gasuk.

“If you’re going to do a phone-a-thon, do a phone [number] cleaning before then,” she says. “Or update salutations and mailing addresses right before the start of a big campaign. Structure it so it makes sense to do it and has value as an investment.”

Generating weekly reports can help manage all of the incoming and outgoing data, says Mr. Paek, and help spot inconsistencies.

Document everything. Though Ms. Zambrano had to untangle the database she inherited at Grace Village Retirement Community, she was relieved to discover that her predecessors consistently made lots of notes.

“Instead of using a fund or campaign code, they left all these comments,” she says. As a result, she now encourages people who work with databases to do the same; if a piece of data is missing, for example, leave a note about why it’s missing.

Putting together a database manual can also help future users, says Ms. Gasuk. And, she adds, it can be done gradually: “When you do a process, just take 10 minutes to take notes about this process. Type it up, name it, and put in a folder.”

Ms. Zambrano says that although it’s easy to forget to document everything amid many other tasks, it’s important to think ahead. “I always try to do what’s most helpful for the organization in 5 to 10 years instead of what’s easy for me today.”

-- The Chronicle of Philanthropy, by Sarah Frostenson, October 20, 2013