How Clean Is Your Donor Data?

For most nonprofits, the database is the organization’s most valuable asset.  Clean, comprehensive donor data is critical to the success of your direct response fundraising efforts.  Incorrect or inconsistent data can harm your fundraising results and may cost you valuable donor relationships.

My colleague tells of receiving an appeal from her alma mater.  The problem?  The letter was addressed to her husband — let’s say to Mr. John Smith — instead of to her, Mrs. Sally Smith (names changed to protect the reputation of the institution!).  My colleague says she did not respond with a gift.

Or consider this example.  One of our clients reported that a donor who had not contributed for more than a decade responded to an appeal with a gift, and she included this note: “You finally got my name right!”  Apparently the donor had notified the organization on more than one occasion that she had been divorced, yet she had continued to receive mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. ….”   When the record was finally corrected, the gift arrived.  By the way, this check was in the amount of $25,000.

So how clean is your donor data?

It’s virtually impossible to fully automate donor data.  That’s why every organization needs a savvy database manager who knows how to manage data quality using agreed-upon business rules and operational controls.

Is it time for a data audit?

The database manager should ensure that all donor information is being entered correctly.  Are you missing important details?  If you’re not sure of the answers to these questions, you need to conduct a series of data quality audits.

A systematic review of your data will help you understand how clean your data is and will give you insights into the value of your existing data.  An audit can also reveal poor data entry processes and gaps in your data entry and management guidelines.

One tip to improve the quality of your data is to run exception reports to help identify missing or inconsistent data.  For example, you can run a report that shows every record where the “Preferred Name/Salutation” field is left blank.

What else is missing?

Do your donor records contain all of the fields that are required to execute your direct response effort with excellence?  Personal information fields that are essential, beyond basic name/address, include Preferred Addressee and Preferred Salutation.

Review your business rules

And it’s essential that you create data entry business rules that are consistent.  Are your salutations formal or informal?  How do you handle donor records for couples with different last names?  What about alumni of the same university who are married to one another?  You must develop business rules that enable you to communicate appropriately and positively impact your friend-raising and fundraising goals.

When entering donations to the database, be sure to capture the correct donor ID number and detailed segment/motivation codes for each and every transaction.

If you don’t know which fundraising activity motivated a gift, you will not be able to gain insights that can improve your contact strategy.  Almost every gift you receive was motivated by a specific activity.  If you are receiving a lot of untracked gifts, you need to improve your gift processing and data entry practices.

Keep your data clean

Addresses must be kept up-to-date.  People move!  Be sure to regularly update your full file with National Change of Address software.  If it’s been more than a year since you’ve done this, you will want to look for options from third-party suppliers.

If you are notified that a donor is deceased, mark the record immediately.  Just as importantly, if a spouse survives, be sure to adjust the record so that you can continue to communicate appropriately.

Another issue that can harm your fundraising results is creating too many restrictions/flags in a donor record.  Excessively and intuitively flagging records with “do not mail,” “do not contact,” and other restrictions can cause great harm to your fundraising strategy over time.  Keep restrictions simple and only flag records when you receive a specific donor request to do so.

Preserve donor data during database conversion

Finally, when you convert your database to a new system, you must retain ALL of your donor records, no matter how old (even if the records must be archived to save on data storage costs).  You may want to reacquire deep lapsed donors (going back 10 or even 20 years) and you will need their entire giving history, including first gift date, to provide you with the best data for a recapture strategy.


If you’re not paying attention to data hygiene, you’re leaving money on the table.  Now is the time to begin cleaning your records.  If you need more tips on how to improve data quality, speak with your database software representative, your peers or your fundraising consultant.  There is nothing more important to your success than clean, complete donor records.

John Payne