Suzanne Tucker /

Since today is the first day of spring, what better time of year to clean out the virtual dust bunnies that have accumulated in your donor database? Your nonprofit is probably well into executing on its strategic plan for 2013 and you may have a good sense of your outreach needs as you gear up for the year-end giving crunch. Ensuring that your database is thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed is a critical, but often overlooked, success factor for nonprofits.

“Data is the DNA and the lifeblood of organizations,” says Shannon Duffy, VP of marketing for’s business unit. “Yet it’s something that all organizations have a challenge updating and maintaining, regardless of whether they are a Fortune 500 company or a small nonprofit.” And no wonder. Approximately 15 percent of people move households every year and 70 percent of business contact data is out of date within one year.

“The best databases are current, complete, and easily shared and customized,” says Duffy. “If you’re a marketer or development officer, you’re going to spend a great deal of time building a list of contacts. You need an accurate database so that you can spend time focusing on campaigning versus trying to find the right person to hear the message to begin with.”

What Purpose Will Your Data Serve?

Before you begin the process of cleaning up your database, it can be worthwhile to take some time to evaluate your data and what you’re attempting to achieve with it. First, assess the data that you have in your database or CRM. Where did it come from? How much of it is outdated or incomplete? Ideally, your database should be thoroughly updated and scrubbed annually, but at minimum it should be cleaned up every two to three years.

Next, identify the data that your organization needs to meet its goals. Do you need to collect household data, contacts at foundations, or data from corporations? Do you need a broad database with thousands of names or detailed information on a smaller list of potential key constituents? So much data is available on people and companies that capturing it all will be unproductive. To build a complete database, you should assess what information your nonprofit needs to be successful and customize data fields around that assessment.

Finally, remember that your database is only as valuable as the relationships that your organization can initiate and build with the contacts in it. In the era of social data, it’s important to ensure that you are connecting with your most valuable contacts through multiple channels. Understanding the channels that resonate best with your audience will help you to segment your data based on the way that your donors and constituents like to be reached. The more you can customize your experience with the donor—or, the more you can customize the donor’s experience with you—the more loyal they are going to be.

You might approach scrubbing your database by contracting with a third-party vendor, utilizing a cloud-based online service, or cleaning your database on your own. That choice will depend largely on the method or platform that you are currently using, the size of your database, and your organization’s budget. Regardless of which method you choose, there are several checks that will help ensure the accuracy of your data.

Verifying the Accuracy of Your Data

Change of address/deceased individuals: Over a four-year period 30 to 40 percent of the people in your database will have changed addresses or died. For household data, postal “move/update” certification will catch most of these changes. The U.S. Postal Service offers individual address verification through something called National Change of Address (NCOA) directly on their website. Most direct mail platforms, such as Vertical Response, have address hygiene tools built in. The U.S. Postal Service also licenses their services to companies that provide NCOA certification in bulk.

Duplicate records: Running a simple de-duping operation will catch a large number of duplicate records in your database, but it is virtually impossible to catch all duplicates without contracting with a third-party vendor who has the ability to match contact data across several referential data resources, such as databases of other clients or credit reporting agencies. A professional data services firm can identify, for example, whether you have two separate records for the same individual through both their household and work address or whether you have a contact on file listed under both their maiden and married names.

Purging old contacts: How long should you keep contacts in your database before purging them? Recommendations as to when to delete lapsed contacts ranges anywhere from 18 months (for aggressive, high-volume direct mailer organizations) to 60 months (for high touch fundraisers where gifts are larger but less frequent). But regardless of your organization’s size, after five years of not connecting with a potential donor, it’s time to purge that contact and move on.

Business contacts: Business contact data for program officers at foundations and corporations is often the most difficult information to keep up to date. There is no change-of-address system for business contacts, so maintaining these records will require a great deal more manual intervention. Again, segmentation is critical. Tagging high-value business contacts can help ensure that these more valuable records are kept up to date.

Turning Data Into Dollars

According to Matthew Nolan, director of product marketing at Blackbaud’s Target Analytics, it is sometimes necessary to “scratch and claw your way through high value data” to ensure accuracy and completeness. Whether your organization focuses on a broad base of supporters or a smaller number of high-value major givers will determine the frequency and intensity of your approach to scrubbing your contact data.

Nolan advises high touch organizations, such as those that regularly reach out to individuals one-on-one for major gifts, to undertake a thorough process of data cleansing, segmentation and modeling once every three years. In between those intervals, he says, organizations should focus on scanning new contacts and flagging those who are the most likely to contribute to the organization. To determine how much you want to invest in pursuing contacts in the short-term, identify not only who has the propensity and the ability to give to your organization, but also who has given to similar organizations in the past.

Data must be scrubbed more frequently at organizations that rely on a broader base of support through large direct mail solicitations, such as those with 100,000 contacts on up to ten million contacts. At these organizations, data should probably be scrubbed annually and additional emphasis should be placed on developing a long-term value approach through conversion modeling. Creating conversion tags that rank and score people in your database based on their likelihood of giving may help you develop a strategy to increase engagement and giving. Wealth and donor screening tools such as Blackbaud’s NOZAsearch or WealthPoint and Equifax’s Income360 can provide you with data on those contacts who have the highest propensity to give or who have given to similar organizations.

“By keeping a tight reign on data quality, nonprofits realize significant benefits in the form of lower marketing costs, increased response rates, and an overall improvement in constituent engagement and experience levels,” says Nolan. Taking the time to undertake a bit of spring data housekeeping now can increase the return on your development and outreach efforts in the months ahead.


John Hoffman has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and development within the nonprofit and technology sectors. You can follow him on Twitter here.