The Top Seven Mistakes of Database Management

by Rick Dunham, Founder+CEO

Over the years, I’ve learned that that the database is the epicenter of all fundraising, and I’ve often compared it to a cardiovascular system. You don’t see it, but if it malfunctions, you’re in trouble.

If the system ever glitches, you won’t be able to track donors and gifts accurately, and your relationships with major supporters could stall because you can’t look up their personal information. You won’t even know what donors responded to which fundraising strategies so you could have difficulty increasing your revenue streams.

Let’s get ahead of those problems by taking a look at the top seven database management mistakes organizations make. This way, you can avoid them and maintain an efficient system that helps your ministry achieve success.

Mistake #1: Failing to codify data entry process

Sit down and write out your organization’s rules for data management and entry so any volunteer can perform data entry for you with the utmost accuracy. Otherwise, people will enter data a hundred different ways, and your database will be a mess.

Mistake #2: Believing that you need a custom database

Custom databases made more sense back in the day, when there weren’t very many systems available in the marketplace. Today, we’ve got a variety of tools that can meet your needs so you don’t have to spend an exorbitant amount of money to have one built.

However, I warn you, there is no database out there that will offer everything. That’s impossible. Even if a software company tells you that its product will do everything you need, don’t believe it. Instead, define your most urgent needs and look for a system that meets most of them.

Mistake #3: Not accessing the intelligence of your data

Now more than ever, you must have detailed data that measures how donors are responding to your various campaigns so you can tweak and improve your messaging. You need to measure fundraising elements like donor gifts and retention, and you need to determine which communication channels are successful. If your database isn’t providing this information – or if you’re just not retrieving it – then you’ll stunt the growth of your fundraising program. You need that intelligence to make wise, informed decisions about strategy that will help lead your organization forward.

Mistake #4: Trying to run everything through one system

This is a little bit different than Mistake #2. Some organizations believe they only need one system that can do everything, but there’s no particular database out there that will do everything well. Instead, you should identify the various systems that will provide the best solutions for you and then tie them together through application program interfaces.

Mistake #5: Allowing constituent record duplication

This can happen easily when donors respond through a foundation and then through a personal address or when two spouses respond separately. As a result, the data doesn’t get recorded properly.

You need to implement regular protocol to clean up your file so donors don’t get multiple communications from you on one issue. This is critical. There’s nothing more frustrating to a donor than receiving multiple messages from your organization. For them, it begins to feel like poor stewardship, which means you’re not managing their donations very well.

Mistake #6: Not cleaning and validating data

You need to run a National Change of Address frequently and get updates from the Post Office about donors who have moved or passed away. This will keep your data current, and you can even get a bulk, nonprofit rate.

Mistake #7: Letting the database manager control marketing efforts

Just because an analysis is difficult to compile doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Occasionally, you might want a certain segmentation or a report and the database manager will say, “Well, we really can’t do that.” But what he or she means is, “No, it’s really too hard.”

Don’t allow your database manager to dictate your fundraising efforts. Place someone in that position who will not only manage the data well, but will also give you the analytics you need to make informed decisions.

And those analytics are crucial. So do what you can to preserve them. Keep your database relevant and updated, and learn how to use the information it recorded to connect more with donors. The more you know, the more you can succeed.

Learn more about the ins and outs of fundraising in Rick’s Dunham Institute course Fundamentals of Effective Fundraising.


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Ready to take the next step? Dunham+Company is here to help your organization have more impact and establish deeper relationships with your donors and supporters. Contact Bethany Cranfield at 469-454-0100 to get more information.