Roberta Helmstadter, Senior Account Director  ●  10/15/2021

Bad Donor Data? Here Are 6 Things You Can Do Today

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Every year, my alma mater sends me an appeal asking to join their alumni association, or at the very least, to donate.  And every year, I chuckle at the data they have on record for me.  First, the outside envelope is completely wrong (it’s addressed to my maiden name, and I’ve been married for 18+ years).  The physical address is where my parents currently live, a location where I’ve never resided (clearly, they did an address append, but unfortunately, it was incorrect).  Inside the appeal has all sorts of wrong information, including the campus I attended while in school and my email address, which actually belongs to my sister-in-law — a fellow Penn Stater!

Being in the fundraising business, I can roll my eyes at this poor data hygiene and still make a monetary gift, but will your donors be as forgiving?  When every organization is grasping for donor dollars, can you afford not to invest in managing a clean data file?


Continuing to mail with bad data is expensive.  Not only does it cost you time and money, but it can also damage your reputation and donor relationships.

Here are 6 things you can do right now to get your data files in order:

  1. The biggest priority should be correctly managing your sustainer donors.  There is so much focus on acquiring valuable sustaining donors, so don’t let that effort be wasted if the donor record isn’t properly coded on the back end.  It’s critical to code their giving amount and frequency accurately, as well as removing lapsed records from the program.
  2. Standardize the way data is entered into your database.  Develop a data entry process and rules around how records will be coded.  All employees who touch the data should be following the same guidelines, so in case they are no longer with the organization, the new employee can seamlessly jump in. 
  3. Circulate these data integrity policies and best practices with your entire staff.  This includes everyone using your donor database from major gift officers, to annual fund folks, to data administrators.  Your data is more likely to stay clean when all departments are following the same rules.
  4. Once your data business rules are established, it’s time to consolidate the current codes.  You may find you have 10 different flags indicating the same thing.  Eliminate flags that are no longer used, and determine which core codes to remain active.
  5. De-dupe your file.  A donor is more likely to call to complain than to give twice when they receive two pieces of the same mail.  It’s wasted money to send duplicate mailings to the same person — but be careful not to remove from the same household where two different donors live with the same address!
  6. Do a data audit every year.  Once your data is in order, keep it that way.  Review your flags, business rules, and data entry processes to see if anything should be adjusted.  Data is always changing, and it’s never going to be perfect, but conducting an annual audit will certainly help to maintain it as best as possible.

Data clean up and maintenance takes time and effort, but it will have a big impact on your donor relationships and overall file health.  Now, I’ll pass this along to the university I attended, since I think they can benefit from getting their data updated, too!


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