Is Your Data Stuck in the Stone Age?


Do you remember watching Saturday morning cartoons when you were a kid?

One of my favorites was the Flintstones, “the modern Stone Age family.” One of the ongoing gags was the Flintstone family piling into the family car and powering it with their bare feet. 

A lot of nonprofits power their fundraising with similar manual, time-intensive processes (donor names in Access, anyone?) instead of a modern, well-organized database. 

Getting your data house in order

The truth is, there is very little reason to put together a fundraising mailing in the first place if you’re not going to capture donor data and organize it in a database. Sure, you’ll get some short-term income to pay the bills, but then what?  

Truly successful fundraising, the kind that builds a relationship and earns repeat donations, runs on data. A good database can tell you exactly who to mail, what to mail them and when they’re most likely to give a donation. 

It will also help you track who responded and make it easier to thank them. And that’s how you get from the Stone Age to enlightenment. 

What kind of data should you capture?

  • donation amount

  • donation date

  • which communication a donor responded to

  • donor names

  • donor addresses

  • donor phone numbers

  • donor spouse information

  • and anything else that will make donors feel special, and your job easier

You really have to afford better

A simple web search on “fundraising database” will get you to links of several different products.  One place to do some initial research is  They not only have free and reduced-price software for nonprofits, but they also have message boards and articles that will help you find the solution that fits your organization. 

There are some really reasonably-priced platforms out there. And most of the time they will help you get your data from where it is (non-existent, Excel spreadsheets, Access database someone built for you, but you can’t maintain anymore) into the system. They may even clean it up a bit for you on the way (sometimes that costs extra).

Once you find your solution, make sure that at least a few people are formally trained to use it. Time and time again “the person who knew how to use it left the organization” is a death knell for efficient fundraising. And when the data ain’t happy, donors aren’t happy.

Of course, you'll train the entire fundraising team. But I challenge you to think broadly about anyone who works on fundraising at all. Some potential candidates include your administrative manager, the assistant to the executive director, and the executive director. 

How to move data the right way

Someone I worked with described converting data like moving. If you have stuff in a bunch of different houses, you have to figure out what is where (spreadsheets, paper files, random event attendee lists) and then decide where it goes in the new house (the shiny new database). 

If you have everything in one messy data house (from what I have seen out there this is a Microsoft Access database) you may not know where everything is when you need to move it to the new house. You are bound to find surprises that are delightful—and horrors that need to be purged along the way.

But like real-world moving, it doesn’t get done if you don’t do something about it. Starting is better than not starting. 

So if all you can stand to think about is finding new software do that first. If you’re obsessing about your messy house/data, do some clean up! Finding and eliminating duplicates is a good place to start. 

Once you get a handle on how much you have to move, and where you’re moving to, most times the pros can help you from there. And I don’t know about you, but the best money I spend as an adult is on professional movers! They are less likely to break themselves or the stuff, and the same goes for data management pros.

Less pain in the long run

And it will feel delightful once it’s done. That email list you need for the event blast? There, ready and sometimes even with an email send tool built right in.

Time to do your holiday mailing? Run a list, knowing that in most cases you have already verified the address with the post office (most systems have this built in).

I admire the Flintstones. Despite lifting granite to do just about everything, they did it and went about with their cartoon lives.

But you? Don’t lift granite. Do some of the groundwork and then ask the pros – the ones with the heavy-duty toolkits – to help you get it done. Welcome to the future!

Terri Shoemaker is Chief Strategy Officer of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising support firm that helps nonprofits create reliable revenue. A professional fundraiser, Terri has raised millions of dollars for nonprofit and higher education institutions. Read more from Terri.