The 5 Secrets for Cleaning Up Your Dirty Raiser’s Edge™ Database

database health Feb 19, 2023
Dirty fundraising database

We had an amazing webinar this month about cleaning up your dirty fundraising database! Click here to watch the replay. Over the past 10 years, we've cleaned up over 500 databases for nonprofit organizations and have worked hard to hone the process. There is an order and a method to cleaning things up in an efficient, effective way. Today, I'd like to share the process with you!

I hope that right now you’re visualizing your clean database and how life might look differently. Guess what? It’s not as complicated as you think it is. In every job I had as a fundraiser or a database administrator, the database was a complete mess. I used to feel completely overwhelmed by where to start, what to tackle next, and how to create big change in my department.  It took me years to figure out the steps and order needed to fix it, I’m not talking band aid fix, fix it the right way, and keep it clean.

Secret #1: Diagnose Your Dirty Fundraising Database

You can’t clean up your database in a streamlined, efficient way, if you don’t know what’s going on. The trick is to work in a specific way so that you can save yourself time and headache. By diagnosing the database you are going to know exactly what is going on, so you can build a manageable, doable cleanup plan. This is why most people fail – they don’t fully diagnose and then they don’t have a plan. Then they flail about and don't accomplish anything. You cannot skip steps.

The way to diagnose is to build a scorecard (in Word or Excel) and list every single field and module in the first column. In the second column, you’re going to ask yourself, what is the current state of this particular field/module? Write everything that’s wrong with that field. Then, in the third column, ask yourself what needs to happen to get this field where it needs to be.

If you’re not convinced that the first step is to diagnose your database, let’s talk about the benefits. First, you will have a document that contains everything you’re doing well and everything that’s not well in the database. Having this holistic view is critical!

This will help you interpret the data and find areas of cleanup that can go together. For example, when we diagnose databases, we like to look at duplicate constituents but also records with no gift history. Oftentimes, we can archive and export the records with no gift history and that dramatically cuts down the number of duplicate constituents to clean up.

Lastly, this is going to help you articulate the state of the database to your colleagues and leadership. You might think, well, my leadership doesn’t care about this. Here’s the thing: They should and it is your job to help them understand and care about the database. After you diagnose, invite the appropriate people to a one-hour meeting to go through the results. Not only does this help your peers understand the database, it will help you rally for any resources you need to clean it up (which might be time or budgetary resources).

When you present your scorecard, don’t go through line-by-line because people might glaze over with too much detail. I recommend presenting at a high level with overall themes. You can send the document to everyone before the meeting, but during the meeting, present at the 30,000 foot view.

Secret #2: Write and Implement Database Standards

This is a powerful, engaging exercise for any and all database users. This is the team’s chance to create a shared understanding of the database and build out what it should look like. Database standards ensure that data is entered in consistent ways, the team understands how to use the database, and, frankly, it is the holy grail when it comes to “this is how we use our database.” This is also about buy-in, and you need the team’s buy in so they follow the standards.

Bring all database users together to review a pre-prepared set of database standards. Go through line-by-line and ask for verbal confirmation of each standards. There will be discussion and some people will not see eye-to-eye. That's okay because the most innovative solutions can bubble up from conflict and its resolution. 

The end result is going to be a clear, documented set of standards for every field and every module in your database. If a new person starts working in your department, you will be able to hand them the standards and they will know exactly how to use your organization's database! This is also a document of what your database should look like when it's in perfect condition.

Secret #3: Plan the Clean-up

Equipped with your diagnostics (everything that is wrong) and your standards (how your database should look), you have everything you need to build a solid, doable clean up plan. 

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, it will probably take time and effort to completely clean and update your database according to your new standards. It might take you 6 months or a year. With your diagnostics and standards, you are going to break down the clean up into these four categories:

  • Overall Database Health - this would include duplicate records, code misspellings and missing data
  • Constituent Tracking and Management - encompasses how you track your donors and prospects and all fields associated (i.e. addressees, salutations, board member code, etc.)
  • Gift Entry and Pledge Management - reviews all your campaign, funds and appeals, please schedules, and any custom fields you have associated with gifts and pledges
  • Database Utilization - digs into every module and examines if you're using everything you're paying for and using it correctly

Go through and write out everything that needs to happen over the next six months (or whatever time frame is doable). It’s going to be a long list, and that is okay. If someone is taking a vacation, note it. If the organization's biggest event is coming up, mark it on the calendar.

It takes a village to clean up a dirty fundraising database, so make sure to ask for help when you need it!

Secret #4: Perform the Clean-up

The next step is to actually clean up the database. And, you’ll want to clean it up in this order - 1) overall database health; 2) constituent tracking and management; 3) gift entry and pledge management; and 4) over database utilization. I promise that all the pre-work you did with diagnostics, standards, and planning are going to help you tremendously!

When you and your partners finish a section, make sure to celebrate. Announce it at the staff meeting, have a virtual happy hour, go out to lunch, do something to celebrate all your hard work. If you don’t have anyone to celebrate with, I want you to call me so we can celebrate!

You’re going to have hard days. There will be days when you think “I can’t do this” or “this isn’t happening quickly enough.” I get it – this is a lot of work – but remember why you’re doing it. A clean database lifts all fundraising boats.


Secret #5: Run Data Integrity Queries to Keep it Clean

The last thing you want to do is to have all that work to clean up your database go to waste. I like to break down maintenance into monthly, quarterly, annual, and before big events/mailings. That way, it doesn’t get unruly again. I’ve listed some examples here, but they should mirror your standards.

  • Monthly maintenance should include reviewing any duplicate records
  • On a quarterly basis, all solicitor relationships should be updated and open pledges reviewed
  • Annually, you'll want to review all campaigns, funds and appeals
  • Before any big mailing or event, check in on your addressees and salutations

There you have it! This is the exact process we use when helping nonprofits clean up their dirty fundraising databases. I hope this inspires you to begin the process because the benefits of a clean database are extraordinary! Clean data supports prospect research, data-driven decision making, and gives the donors a better experience with your nonprofit.

About Mary Hackett

Mary Hackett is a vibrant and engaging powerhouse in the world of major gift expertise, with a sparkling career steeped in the intricacies of fundraising operations. Residing in the picturesque town of Bend, Oregon, Mary's professional journey is as lively and inspiring as her scenic surroundings. Her extensive experience in fundraising is marked by a unique blend of strategic insight and a contagious enthusiasm that has consistently propelled organizations to new heights of success. With a knack for connecting with people and a deep understanding of the nuances of philanthropy, Mary has become a sought-after expert in her field. Her approach to fundraising is not just about meeting targets; it's about building relationships, weaving stories, and creating impactful experiences that resonate with donors and communities alike. In Mary's world, every fundraising campaign is an adventure, filled with opportunities to make a meaningful difference while having a whole lot of fun along the way. Want to work with Mary? 

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