The Unsexy Side of Fundraising: Excel Is Not a Database
I’ll never forget the first time I came across an organization using Excel as a database. I’d taken on a part-time position as grant writer for a mid-sized agency working with women and children. Although I’d been hired to write grants, within weeks, the organization engaged me to write its annual Mother’s Day appeal. The agency actually had Donor Perfect, a decently functioning database, however, its support contract had lapsed years earlier and the software had not been updated.
I still recall working on that appeal. I was given less than a week from start to finish to get out all 1,300 pieces—in-house. As I struggled to create a segmented, personalized, mail-merged appeal, our events manager asked me, rather scornfully, if I’d ever used Excel before.
“Sure,” I responded. “I’m well-versed in Excel, but Excel is not a database.”
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 primarily on the basis of price. These days I’m seeing a lot of organizations using one cloud-based customer relationship management program based solely on the free price tag. Free never is.
In most offices, staff is given little to no training on software. Data entry policies never are established. No one is given ownership of the database—or the organization qualifies the data manager as an underpaid clerical staffer.
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 and sent it off with high hopes. You later learned that the foundation had funded your organization three years ago, and your organization had 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 30 years, vowing never to contribute again because she has phoned three times in the past two years to have her deceased husband’s name removed from the mailing list—and she just received a newsletter addressed to him.
- You’re unable to track how well your fall appeal did because the proper coding never was created in the donor database to track it.
I have personally encountered these horror stories and, yes, worse, in a wide variety of nonprofit organizations.
You simply cannot function as a donor-centric organization without a donor database.
While employee attrition probably plays a large role in the problem, it’s clear that selecting the appropriate database, thoroughly training staff, developing strong 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 to set 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 calls recorded in the database?
- How are email addresses collected and entered?
Answer these questions and keep a record.
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 hiring a qualified database manager? Blackbaud's Raiser's Edge can be a 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.
It bears repeating: Excel is not a database. It is a spreadsheet application. If you’re keeping your records in Excel, you’re in for some problems.
It was recently revealed that misspelling someone's last name can decrease gift size by up to 12 percent! Development is, by its very nature, data-driven. While data may not put the "fun" in fundraising, pay attention to the details, now and on a consistent basis, and the capital campaign your organization runs 10 years from now will function seamlessly. Trust me.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.