What Is Your Data Trying To Tell You?

What a missed opportunity!

Too many nonprofit development professionals simply view their fundraising database as a glorified mailing list. They aren’t thinking about the strategic uses of the information. Created and managed properly, your database can be a powerful tool in at least four ways:

(a)  scorekeeping — the basics of how much has been donated, how many active donors you have, what your response rates are on repeat donors, and so on;

(b)  attention-directing — making it easy for you to see trends in donor origin or behavior, or to see that it is time to cultivate certain donors such as the prime prospect who is ready to be elevated to a more personal interaction;

(c)  problem-solving — including helping you figure out what tactics are and are not working, or helping you to analyze costs of a certain campaign per dollar raised or the cost of a new prospect identified; and

(d)  integration across your entire resource development strategy, including timelines; your software may be able to manage your grant submittal calendar, too, or volunteer teams on assignments and follow-up; you should even create your own data maintenance schedule and create flags for yourself and your colleagues.

So perhaps your nonprofit is back in the “we consider it our mailing list” mode. At least make sure it is the best list it can be. Did you know that the quality of your data list is generally considered to be responsible for at least 50 percent of the success of an email/mailing program (with the message of the campaign and the creativity of its presentation considered to be responsible for 30 and 20 percent, respectively)?

To make the transition from mailing list to strategic tool, you must have someone who is both passionate about, and accountable for, the ongoing data maintenance–getting new data entered following a major event, making sure call and meeting notes are complete, and staying on top of duplicates, bounced messages, returned mail, and so on. There are some obvious reasons why this work is better suited to an employee than a volunteer.

As a strategic management tool, your database is only as strong as the thought that has gone into creating the software (which you likely cannot control) and entering and managing the data (which is completely your responsibility, critically important, and so often neglected).

That said, if your organization has made a concerted and reasonable effort over time, there are some tremendous gifts that this body of data can give you. If your database hasn’t been neglected or in awful disarray, it IS trying to tell you some valuable tips for raising money. Are you listening? Here’s what to look for, with any one of these ten ‘snapshots’ easily warranting your focused consideration:

  1. How recent? Learn how to run the basic reports of gifts over time, within a certain period, and so on. A long-range strategy will help you define whether you would rather have one donor giving $600 a year ago or one donor giving $50 a month for 12 months, and how to appreciate how each should be treated going forward.
  2. Lapsed donors. At the other end of the spectrum is the lapsed donor, where your reports should help you review the last 12, 18, 24, even 36 months. Some experts recommend not removing a name until it becomes a 60-month lapsed donor. A good rule of thumb is to continue to send email/mailings to your lapsed donor group for as long as the results are as good or better than appeals to people who have never supported the organization.
  3. How often? Again, your own plan will define what you consider to be a frequent donor.  “Low” is usually one gift a year, “medium” could be two gifts or more within 12 months, and “high” mighty be three or more gifts in a year. “High” donors should probably be moved into a personal solicitation program.
  4. How much? Don’t get stuck in measuring your success solely based on the revenue in from a particular email/mailing or even a single campaign. Cash is obviously important, but so is building your base of interested contacts. Beyond dollars, you are seeking willing donors, so a well-researched record can also include your analysis of this person’s ability/capacity to give.
  5. From where? Where did this person come from, or how did they discover your organization? Tracking this is arguably the single most important fact in a record beyond the name and contact information. Your use of coding is absolutely essential: is this the record of an individual, business or corporation, foundation, government agency, church or synagogue, association or union, or service club?  You must be able to see the obvious trends that your best recent results have come from: constituents, current board, former board, volunteers, staff, current donors, lapsed donors, vendors, affluent person with a connection to your organization, or supporters of your issue/industry.
  6. Preferences? Method of contact and frequency will both be variable based on what cultivation status you consider this donor to be. If you’re preparing to ask this individual for a major gift, cut back on routine email appeals.
  7. Notes section? What is their connection to your issue? Have they attended specific coded events? Volunteer involvement, interests/hobbies, birthday, family?
  8. Have you met? Each file should indicate something like (1) best of friends; relative, or close business associate; (2) acquainted and friendly; (3) met once or twice; (4) have never met; (5) hostile relationship.
  9. Prompt thank-you or other acknowledgement? This should be within 48 hours. We are always disheartened to learn about client organizations who neglect this essential step.
  10. Flagged for next move? What is your defined measurement for a donor who is ripe for an upgrade? Think big. The capacity for most adults in the U.S. to give is wildly underrated, even in these challenging economic times. “Americans tend to donate about one-fifth of what they can afford to donate. In other words, most people can afford to give five times as much as they are currently giving without substantially changing their lifestyle,” writes Stanley Weinstein in The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management.

If any part of this list leaves you envious about the potential of what a well-managed database could do, think about starting today with a step-by-step plan to get there. Start with a small number of files to be updated and completed. It can be a daunting process, to be sure, to truly build a management tool rather than just keeping a list. But the value to your fundraising success in the future is inarguable.

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