The Evolution of Nonprofit Data Management

Early Donor Records: The Keeper of the Files

In the olden days, before computers, donor information was kept on rolodex cards or in individual files. If someone wanted information about a donor’s giving history, they went to the Keeper of the Files, who may or may not have updated the cards or files. Fortunately, however, the Keeper of the Files often had a memory like an elephant – and could tell you that “Yes, the Joneses used to give generously. But since Mr. Jones retired, they moved down to Florida and they haven’t given locally in years.”

Maybe the Keeper of the Files was right. And maybe she was wrong. Perhaps the Jones family she remembered was the W. Jones family – while you were asking about the G. Jones family who gave generously at your last fund drive. But a few pencil notes and a memory were about as good as it got.

Spreadsheets

Then spreadsheets came along.

With a spreadsheet, you could organize all your donor information in one place, keep the information updated, and print out reports at the drop of a hat. You could reorganize your information by field, so you could review, for example “all donors who gave more than $50 in 2013.” Spreadsheets were a huge innovation, and have become a standard tool for many non-profit development professionals.

But spreadsheets have their limits. For example, imagine this situation. The Chairman of the Board has an opportunity to meet with Ms. BigBucks this afternoon. Ms. BigBucks, you remember, went to school with someone on the board and has some sort of relationship with the foundation that gave you a small gift last year. The Chairman needs that information immediately, so that he can make the strongest possible connection with Ms. BigBucks. The better his information, the more likely it is that he’ll be able to interest Ms. BigBucks in your non-profit and potentially give – you guessed it – Big Bucks.

Unfortunately, while you can find Ms. BigBucks’ personal giving history, address, and contact information on the donor spreadsheet, you can’t remember much more about her.

If only the Keeper of the Files were still around, you could ask her… and she might remember some useful bits of information. But of course, these days, the Keeper has long since retired and no one knows her phone number. Perhaps she’s on someone’s speed dial?

The Database Advantage

Of course, there is a better solution to this type of problem. Instead of relying on a single human being’s memory, or a spreadsheet, many successful non-profits rely on databases.

In many ways, databases combine the handiness of the spreadsheet with the reliability and ongoing memory of the Keeper of the Files. Even better, they allow fundraisers to make the kinds of connections and associations that would be impossible with a spreadsheet.

Going back to the situation with the impatient Chairman and the potential donor, how might a database make the difference?

Multiple Users

Looking up Ms. BigBucks on the database, you find that, in addition to the basic contact and donor information that you entered, several others have added critically important bits of information. For example, one board member noted “Ran into BB at the State University Homecoming event. We talked about the possibility of a named donation for the capital campaign. She seemed interested.”

Linked Information

You see that Ms. BB’s entry is linked to the Smith Foundation, and find that Ms. BB is a member of the Smith Foundation board. Last year, Smith Foundation gave you just $200; perhaps she could help to increase that number next year.

Cross Referenced Giving History

You find that, yes, Ms. BB gave just $50 last year. But the board room, called the MacMillan Room, was actually funded by and named for the MacMillan family. And a link from Ms. BB’s database entry leads to the critically important information that MacMillan is Ms. BigBucks’ maiden name. In other words, Ms. BB has a family history of significant giving.

Useful Details

Yes, Ms. BB gave just the one $50 gift after receiving an annual appeal. But you can now see that in addition to that very small gift, she also attended your gala and purchased a $5,000 auction item. You also learn that the item she purchased was a guided tour behind of the scenes of your non-profit. If Ms. BB was that interested in knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, the Chairman might be able to tap into that interest.

Coping with Cost of a Database

If you are like many fundraisers, you’re only aware of the top brands in fundraising databases. These are very powerful tools, it’s true, but they were created with very large non-profits in mind. They are expensive, complex, and intended to manage thousands of names, gifts, and relationships.

For managers of smaller non-profits, such a database would make fundraising easier – in much the same way that buying an airplane would make it easier to travel. Few small to mid-sized non-profits need the power or can afford the expense of the biggest database programs.

Fortunately, the database business has learned how to tailor its products to the needs of its clients. You can purchase a system that can be customized to the size and scope of your individual non-profit like Sumac!

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