It’s the Data, Stupid! Why Your Organization’s Database is Your Most Important Development Tool

February 18, 2009


We all know the story of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush.While, early on, Bush was considered virtually unbeatable, Clinton’s campaign chose to address an issue that Bush Sr. had ignored, and “It’s the economy, stupid” became a catch phrase.

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 solely on the basis of price.Staff is given little to no training on software.Entry policies are never established.No one is given ownership of the database – or the organization qualifies the data manager as low-level clerical staff.

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, sent it off with high hopes … and later learned that the foundation HAD funded your organization three years ago, 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 thirty years, vowing to never 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 was never created in the donor database to track it.

I have encountered these horror stories and, yes, worse, in a wide variety of nonprofit organizations.

An organization’s best campaign will fall on deaf ears if donors have given up on your organization in frustration over poor record keeping.

And, while employee attrition probably plays a large role in the problem, it’s clear that selecting the appropriate database, thoroughly training staff and developing firm 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 setting 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).

  1. 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?
  2. What is the turnaround time for gift acknowledgement? One week? Two? Who places thank you phone calls? When and why?
  3. How are email addresses collected and entered?
  4. When deciding upon a donor database, is price your only criteria (I sincerely hope not!)?
  5. Once you have a database in place, is your organization recognizing the value of proper maintenance, including training and the hiring of a qualified database manager?
  6. Raisers Edge can be the 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.
  7. And Excel is not a database. It is a spreadsheet. If you’re keeping your records in Excel, you’re in for some problems.

Development is, by nature, data-driven. Pay attention to the details, now and on a consistent basis, and the capital campaign your organization runs ten years from now will function seamlessly.  Check out my friend, Alexandra Nelson’s posts on Setting up database protocols for more information.


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Roberta Wood April 8, 2009 at 2:13 pm

So what data base do you recommend? I agree with everything you say and have experienced many of the problems cited.

Ariel April 10, 2009 at 12:36 pm

I agree wholeheartedly! The theater I raise money for has a combo tickets/donor database and I intend to transition our donor records to eTapestry this summer. The combo database is so non-functional and inflexible that my predecessor used a network of spreadsheets in combination with it to track donors. It was really hard to figure out without her there.

Pamela Grow April 10, 2009 at 1:14 pm

In the context of several positions, and as a consultant, I have come across stories like yours. Excel is NOT a database, yet it is too often used for one. I’ve even seen it used in organizations using Raisers Edge.

I like eTapestry, however the important thing to keep in mind is to develop very strong policies going forward and to document everything.

Thanks for commenting!

Pamela Grow April 10, 2009 at 1:18 pm

I don’t really have a recommendation. Obviously cost DOES play a factor, as well as the size of your organization.

What’s important, aside from the selection, is to ensure that you have a staff member (hopefully more than one) fully trained and that all data entry protocols are fully documented. For smaller organizations, I generally do prefer eTapestry. Their web-based system enables you to allow for many users.

Lori L. Jacobwith July 14, 2009 at 9:23 am

I, too, have encountered stories just like these and WORSE. There a number of good data bases out there. Trail Blazer is great web based system I use myself and many of the organizations I work with use. It’s web based which is key in this technology age.

Having a great system and using it properly are two entirely differnt things. A great system can be used by many people in your organization. It is a good thing to allow limited access to enter notes into donor records to key leadership, including your CEO and board chair.

For key development staff, the recommendation I make is that you keep the system open, on your desktop, all day long and enter each phone call, email or meeting with short easy to understand notes.

Building the institutional knowledge at your organization is invaluable or as they say at MasterCard…priceless.

Brian Hanf July 15, 2009 at 8:59 am

Pamela – wow that was a great article. We run into Excel all the time. We call it our biggest competitor.

Lori thanks for the shout out.

For anyone interested in checking out Trail Blazer you can visit or email me or just give a call toll free 1-800-446-1375.

Brian Hanf
Trail Blazer

Kevin B. Gilnack July 15, 2009 at 9:12 am

You raise some great questions for folks to consider when thinking about their database needs and I completely agree that a database that meets your organization’s needs is essential.

I just wanted to include some links other resources for anyone exploring CRM options..

NTEN’s 2007 CRM Satisfaction Survey

IdealWare’s In Search of CRM Part 1: Understanding Constituents and Processes

Pamela Grow July 15, 2009 at 10:34 am

I remember the first time I came across the whole excel thing. I was pretty well versed in both excel, having worked as a bookkeeper, and databases, having created several from scratch using the lil old standby Access. Trying to pull records together was such a pain, trying to sort … what a mess. Then again, I recently worked w/ an organization who had installed Raisers Edge over 10 yrs ago and were utilizing about 10% of its capabilities and had not assigned key fields to allow for more complex segmenting. They weren’t even collecting email addresses!

Robert Weiner September 23, 2009 at 6:01 pm


Great post.

I wrote an article for Idealware called “Back Away From That Spreadsheet: Why Excel Isn’t a Donor Database.” It’s at

Jenn Howard March 3, 2010 at 9:43 am

Fantastic post!

Excel is definitely NOT a database.

We run a custom, built-from-scratch solution. While not always hassle-free, it allows us to grow our data as we ourselves grow and change.

Pamela Grow March 3, 2010 at 10:15 am

You know I designed two Access databases for a foundation that I worked for – and, today, over 15 years later, they are still using them. I always stress that it is not necessarily the organization’s choice of a database (although having a web-based database is preferable imo), but how they handle it and the kinds of policies and procedures that they establish for entry. Thanks for your feedback.

Alexandra April 28, 2010 at 5:23 am

Thanks for the post and everyones comments. It has helped me focus on addressing the issue in the Foundation where I work. Fingers crossed we’ll get to creating a proper database in the next few weeks. Following advice above I hope we opt for eTapestry.

Leslie August 12, 2010 at 6:55 am

Our agency uses Raisers Edge and I inherited a database that was not maintained properly, so little by little records are being updated, etc. Problem is, no one here really knows how to do anything beyond the basics and I have been too busy just trying to get the department in order to delve into the inner guts of the system (try development files being in 3 offices, all the little scraps of paper used to figure out the budget on a grant request, but no copy of the grant request, and yes trying to find documentation of a major gift). I agree with Lori – every time I have any kind of interaction with a donor (phone call, meeting, note written) I log that contact. Helps me make sure I reach out at least twice a year.

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