Nightmare or Rosy Dream – Database Management for Fundraising

The Nightmare: All of the clothing you have ever owned in your entire lifetime is in piles on the floor of your walk-in closet, unfolded and disorganized. Socks, shoes, tights, jogging pants, underwear, pajamas, shirts, tank-tops, t-shirts, shorts, ties, earrings, rings, hats and coats, everywhere. The pile is chest-deep. You have to get dressed. You panic. “This is not an efficient way of dressing! I can’t find anything!” Then you realize you have to organize it. “It’s too overwhelming. I just need everything to be in its place so I can get what I want when I need it!”

You wake up in a cold sweat.


Is this nightmare how you sometimes feel when it comes to managing donor information? Is it frustrating, confusing, overwhelming, and disorganized? Database management is often the last priority for small groups. You’re busy changing the world! Data what?

If your shoes are on a tree rack and the shirts and pants are on hangers in the closet, you can plan when you need to do laundry, know if you have an outfit for a black-tie party, or assess which pants look good with what shirt. Right? How does this relate to fundraising?

It is generally understood that the goal of fundraising is to build a base of donors who will give you money every year. In order to make informed decisions and realistic plans about all of your fundraising efforts, you need to assess and target your fundraising strategies so that you can increase your base of donors. You can do this better and smarter if donor information is organized and easy to capture in a readable report. One important aspect of doing that is to have a database that is used properly and runs efficiently. You wouldn’t put all your clothes from your whole life in one room and try to get dressed or even try to organize them. Think of your donors in the same way.


When a database is up and running efficiently, it’s like having a rosy dream instead of a nightmare. How? Databases do two things that are essential to fundraising:

  1. Produce reports to help you make informed decisions and realistic fundraising plans
  2. Help you grow in your fundraising efforts

Reports: Proof of Effectiveness 

Reports are the core of your database program. Their job is to provide answers to questions about your donors and your fundraising efforts so you can move forward with some certainty. Imagine spending 45 minutes in the nightmare closet looking for a clean pair of white socks when the only ones in there are from when you were five years old, but you don’t know that. In fundraising, if you don’t know what donors you have or how long they’ve been with you or what happened in your past efforts with them, you’ll spend time trying things that either aren’t a good idea or aren’t even a possibility. For example, you wouldn’t launch a special event starting at $50 if your average gift is $40.

Different kinds of reports answer different questions:

  • Assessment reports answer, “What happened?” They are “the numbers,” measuring success so that you can compare fundraising efforts. Some examples: How many donors were mailed to in that last mail appeal? How many responded? What was the average gift size? Are this year’s special events doing as well as last year’s? Did they bring in a higher ratio of money to expense? Did more people come?
  • Donor category reports answer, “Who responded?” giving you specific donor information. For a major donor campaign, when you ask, “Who gave $500 or more in the last 24 months for any reason?” a donor category report can print out all their names, addresses, phone numbers, and gift history so that board members can follow up with personal solicitations.
  • Thank you letter reports answer, “Who gave in the last 48-hours/just to the direct mail appeal?” Then it compiles information to be merged into thank you letters–an important tool as your donor base gets larger and you have more donors to thank within that 48-hour window!
  • Mailing label reports answer, “Who gave (total givers or any subset)” and prints the answer on mailing labels. Useful if you want to exchange with another group for one-time use or if you want to mail something to a specific set of donors (like special event givers).
  • Pledge reports answer, “Who made what pledges and what pledge payments are late?” These help you maintain a monthly giving program.
  • Giving history reports answer, “Who gave and how much?” For example, you can show the name and phone number of donors who gave $100 or more in the last three years (major donor) and how much they have given in total over the last three years. You can also track individual donors to see if there are patterns to their giving. This can help you determine when to ask them for more.

Helping You Grow 

When your old clothes are at the Salvation Army and your closet is really under control, you can move onto other things. When your database is running smoothly and efficiently, you are now in a position to focus on executing a better fundraising program–getting more donors and raising more money. You can move on to diversify the ways you ask for money and increase how frequently you ask.

Here’s how your programs can improve:

  • Direct Mail/Annual Fund programs often improve when the information in your donor base comes into focus. Some things you can do: cut out a segment of donors who never give to mailings; work to upgrade donors who give the same amount to the annual fund every year; determine how many more mailings to do each year.
  • Acquisition technically loses money, but is a great way to increase your number of donors (thereby making money later). You can choose what kinds of new lists to look for once you understand the demographics of your donor base. Your database can help you do this by sorting current donors by zip codes, professions, or other information you might be able to feed in.
  • Donor Surveys can yield a lot of information from your donors. The more you know, the better decisions you can make about reaching them with appeals, acquisitions, special events, planned giving, and major donor programs. A good time to conduct a donor survey is when you are increasing your efforts or making a change. Information that you gather on your donors can be fed into your database for later use. (For more on conducting donor surveys, see Fundraising for Social Change by Kim Klein, and “Getting to Know Your Donors: The Donor Survey,” by Martha Farmelo, Grassroots Fundraising Journal, Vol. 20:1, 2001.)
  • Major Donor/Capital Campaign/Planned Giving/ Endowment Efforts are all upgrading efforts. As you saw in the “reports” section, if you include in your database information about who knows each donor (either on your board or staff or in the larger community), you can print out a potential major donor report to inform you of potential solicitors. For example, for a direct mail appeal or special event focused on capital improvements, you’d want to select donors you’ve identified as most likely to give additional money for that kind of project. For a planned giving campaign, you’d want to know who has expressed interest in having your group in their will.
  • Special Events are a way for donors to come closer the organization by bringing your group and the donor face-to-face, instead of through the mail. As a result, special events help build the relationship. Your special event program can be enhanced once you understand the giving tendencies of your donors; you may even ask what events they prefer in your donor survey and include the results in your database.
  • Phone Banking/Telemarketing works well with some donors. Your database can print a report with phone numbers of lapsed donors or those who have responded to phone appeals in the past.
  • Finding Board Members can be easier when you know which donors show commitment to the organization by moving up in their level of giving or giving frequency; these people may be good prospects for your board of directors. Your database program can provide this kind of donor information so you can see who these special donors are.

As you can see, with a great database, there is a rosy dream of informative reports, targeted asks, and increased fundraising success.

This article was originally printed in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, to which Maria Petulla is a regular contributor. For more information, check out

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