Why data integrity matters

My husband and I have been donating to an alma mater of his for years. Decades, actually. And when I say “my husband and I” I mean my husband. I have asked him to not make these recurring monthly donations, that there are other, more worthy causes in the world that we should be directing our dollars to, but he really wants to support this institution, and so we have for the majority of our long marriage.

Eventually we hit a cumulative giving threshhold and combined age that we attracted the attention of their major gift team, and I began getting phone calls. Me. The one who has been saying for years that I don’t want to give to this institution.

I spoke to the gift officer, who was kind and grateful for our gifts, and explained that he really needs to talk to my husband, I personally would not still be sending money their way and that it’s my husband who is directing the donations. I even provided his phone number so he could call him directly. He said he would make a note of it and thanked me for taking his call.

Then, about six months later, I began getting phone calls again from the institution. I let them go to voicemail for a while, but finally started picking them up. The cheerful person on the other line said, “Hi, may I speak to Wayne?”

Uh, no you may not. Because you reached me on my cell phone at work. But this time I wasn’t so helpful to explain that Wayne was my husband and to give his number.

I replied, “This isn’t Wayne’s number.” No explanation that I knew Wayne, was his spouse, no additional information was given, simply that it wasn’t his number.

Now, hopefully, they have marked the phone number in their system as a “bad” number. But they missed the opportunity to actually connect with the person who wants to support their organization.

What I’m imagining happened is that the gift officer put text into a note field that said “wife does not support, husband Wayne’s number is XXX.” And there it stayed, in a text field. Unsearchable, unattached to Wayne as a person.

This is why I am passionate about helping nonprofits build and maintain databases, so that the personal information that can connect a donor to a single potential major donor is not lost in the clouds. All it takes is one donor, one connection, to make a difference to an organization. Maintaining the data to make those connections is critical.

Data Drives Strategy: Rainmaker Podcast

I was thrilled to sit down with my friend Andrew Olsen to talk about data-driven strategy for “The Rainmaker Fundraising Podcast,” which was published today.

We recorded this in February, and then the pandemic happened, and honestly, data didn’t really seem important in the midst of everything that nonprofits were facing.

Yet those organizations that have their data in order have done the best in the past 9 months, in reaching out to those who want to hear from them and ask for their help, in telling others what their needs are and how they can get involved so the organizations can fulfill their missions.

I’ve had the opportunity to help a client in the past few months to get their database in order, creating clear definitions of active donors, build a lapsed donor strategy and launch new fundraising initiatives for them. I’m excited for their future fundraising success built on a data-driven strategy.

In order to have a data-driven strategy, you have to understand the data. One of the reasons why I love talking to Andrew is because he and I have similar “battle stories” of working with data, we geek out together about data and fundraising. I think he and I could exchange stories for hours.

Take a listen to learn about the “peggy rule,” how arbitrary suppression rules cost nonprofits money, and some of the quick tactics nonprofits can do to prevent these kinds of issues.

Destruction by Database

My very first job out of college was at an agency that called itself a “database marketing” firm. They didn’t market databases; they used data to make informed marketing decisions. I had the glamorous job of working in the Response Center, answering inbound telemarketing calls and entering direct mail leads generated by the smart marketing that had been executed for their clients.

I never got far from data the rest of my career. From analyzing client direct response results to understanding how a nonprofit was capturing data so I could later request it, using data has always been a part of my job. I’ve seen data managed with kid gloves, every piece of information carefully captured, updated and reported as it comes in. I’ve also seen great measures of data be shredded rather than entered into the database, thousands of potential relationships rolled out the door in a bin after years of lingering in a drawer.

From all of this, I have one piece of advice for nonprofits, and you can quote me on this:

Invest in your database.

— Jenny Floria

Pretend you just bought a new car. Congratulations! You have a car! It runs smoothly, it’s quiet, it is awesome. But you don’t change the oil, put air in the tires, or do anything to maintain the car. It gets louder and louder over time, the ride gets bumpier and, well, in no time at all you’ve got a clunker on your hands.

The same thing happens when you don’t regularly invest in your database. Here are some of the ways in which I’ve seen nonprofits pay in the long run for not investing in their databases.

Nonprofit A purchases a highly-recommended and relatively expensive database. The person put in charge of the database often ignores the upgrades the software company recommends installing, figuring the updates aren’t worth the time or money. Before they know it 10 years have passed and the database doesn’t capture more than two phone numbers per household (because who’s got more numbers besides “work” and “home?”). They re-invest in a new database and move the data, losing much of it in the conversion as the fields were not properly mapped since the old database was so antiquated.

Nonprofit B uses a free database. This meets their needs for the first few years when they’ve only got a couple of hundred donors. They grow quickly and need to raise big money for their expansion. They realize they don’t have current addresses on many of their founding donors, they have phone numbers captured in one of four different fields and can’t do any wealth screening because their data can’t be matched due to its inconsistencies. They have to pause their campaign to make an investment in a database, something they should have done earlier.

Outside of the initial purchase and licensing expenses, how should nonprofits be investing in their databases?

  • Put the right people in charge of the database. Give the job to a professional who knows the ins and outs of databases and what is needed to keep them running effectively.
  • Treat the data like your nonprofit depends on it…because it does. No matter how insignificant it may seem, every piece of information could be a treasure. Evaluate every source and make sure your database has the ability to capture it, even if you choose not to.
  • Update update update. Unless the initial purchase decision was completely disastrous, it is nearly always more effective to continue working with your current database than move to a new one. Budgets have been blown, deadlines extended, good employees resigned, and potential revenue left on the table in the midst of database conversions.
  • Train people on how to use the database. This includes training your database manager, who should stay up-to-date on the latest developments. When updates occur, make sure users are aware and know how to use the new features.
  • Have consistent data capture. Where data is stored and how it is used should not change every time a staff member walks in the door. Have written documentation of when, where and how data is captured so that it continues to flow regardless of who is working at the nonprofit.

Data is at the heart of your business. You want your major gift officers to reach donors at the right phone number, your appeals to reach people at their current address, and to understand the relationship between donors and your organization. Make these investments in your database for your team to succeed.