How Can I Love You If You Don’t Know My Name?

Constituents want to love you. But what happens when you throw scenarios like these into the relationship?

  • A woman whose father died three years ago receives invitations for him to attend your annual gala.
  • A couple donates as a family to your organization. Sometimes the wife and husband donate separately. Now, they get three copies of all your appeals.
  • A donor who makes large annual gifts to your nonprofit hasn’t received thanks for his most recent gift. He sees your president at a function, she thanks him for his gift but, he realizes with dismay, she’s thanking him for last year’s donation.

All of these cases are real. In each, constituents were annoyed, inconvenienced or angered by organizations they wanted to love. In the last case, the major donor ended his support. The problem in all cases was ineffective data management. When your nonprofit fails to use data to determine how to treat donors, problems creep in. Constituents begin to feel your organization doesn’t know them, and they’re infinitely less likely to respond with support.

The Data Management Act

What does “ineffective” data management look like on an operational level? Some of the most egregious signs include when organizations have no clear rules for managing data, no methodology to store and retrieve information, and, as a result, little (or inaccurate) data with which to determine how to interact with constituents in the way that’s right for the constituent.

Efforts to get your data-management act together frequently face obstacles in behaviors that are as common as they are ingrained in the nonprofit (and corporate, for that matter) world:

  • Relying on intuition and gut instincts instead of data and facts. Today, the science of fundraising allows nonprofits to build predictive models using their own data. But models are useless if the data is not accurate and clean.
  • Failing to set clear rules for governing and managing data. Who needs and/or can see certain data? Who’s responsible for entering and maintaining data? How do you code data? With no rules for entering, coding, processing and accessing data, information often becomes polluted.
  • Not rewarding/measuring staff to care about accurate data (that is, until something goes wrong).

Fortunately, these behaviors are amenable to corrective action. Effective data management can help regain constituent love by helping you use data to interact with prospects and donors in the most effective way possible. Following are a few key ways to begin turning the tide and getting more love in return.

Improve data governance

Does the Mississippi chapter necessarily need to see, let alone change, the data on the California chapter’s donors? Data governance settles questions like this by making decisions around who can see data, which data they can see, who can alter and use data and more. It also specifies who makes the decisions about these decisions. Ideally, your system should allow you to establish the permissions necessary for good data governance throughout the organization at a database level. Effective data governance ensures that the data in your systems is trustworthy—accurate, timely and meaningful. It also makes people accountable for any issues that arise around data quality.

Eliminate silos

When you have multiple databases, data chaos is often the result. Eliminating data silos, shadow databases, etc., is of primary importance to effective data management. Using one central database or at least integrating systems offers a wealth of benefits. You’re recording the data on all the activity occurring between your organization and its constituents in one place; when anything is recorded there, it’s available to the whole organization immediately. One system eliminates data redundancies and ensures data changes everywhere it needs to. Eliminating silos is often challenging, given people’s belief that their database is, of course, the only accurate database, but it is doable.

Use a consistent workflow for common activities

Even if you’re using different systems, using the same workflow will greatly improve the accuracy of the data you’re recording. Think strategically about creating a common language and coding that will help ensure data is entered appropriately and accurately. Create a workflow, for instance, that requires everyone to use the same fields for inputting certain information, or requires recording information in the same manner (think dollar amounts) to ensure data consistency and your ability to report and take action on it. For instance, entry of a gift over a certain amount might trigger a note to a development officer for personal follow up.

Part and parcel of a common workflow is a coordinated communication stream. Make sure constituent preferences on how they want to be communicated with are recorded in only once place. Likewise, data about when constituents have been communicated with.

Finally, once you establish a workflow and communication process, you must document and communicate it to make sure that people follow it over time and even when staff change.

Communicate more purposely

The key benefit to tightening up your data management is that you can communicate with purpose, and constituents can support you more readily. This goodness comes about because you’ll be able to

  • better focus the appropriate fundraiser on the appropriate level of fundraising opportunity with the appropriate prospects.
  • provide better constituent service by, for example, communicating with people as they prefer.
  • more easily get data out of your systems to take appropriate action.
Steve Birnbaum
Vice President of Client Solutions
SofTrek Corporation
Steve Birnbaum has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management, with particular expertise in organizational planning, technology implementation, and change management. Steve is Vice President of Client Solutions for SofTrek Corporation. He develops and executes SofTrek’s short-term and long-term sales and implementation strategies, and oversees the company’s client services efforts. Steve previously was associated with Jacobson Consulting Applications, Inc. (JCA), a firm specializing in helping non-profits use technology more effectively to achieve their fundraising goals. There, he was responsible for managing delivery of consulting services and new business development. He also provided strategic guidance for large organizations launching complex technology initiatives.