Is your nonprofit database starting to look like a library without a librarian? Use these 5 tips to clean it up and establish better hygiene practices.
By Gabrielle Perham
Your nonprofit’s donor database is like a library. When a librarian is present, the library stays clean and orderly, with everything in the right place so visitors can quickly find what they’re looking for. Without a librarian, the system falls apart — you’ve got books everywhere, it takes visitors hours to find what they’re looking for, and no one’s getting the information they need!
The same thing can happen to your nonprofit’s donor database. If your nonprofit has operated for many years, you may have gone through different iterations of your data input procedures. Now, your database looks like a library with several different coding systems. If this sounds familiar, you’ll want to set aside time to do some cleaning and establish better data hygiene practices.
As AccuData Integrated Marketing’s data hygiene guide explains, data hygiene is important for businesses because “dirty” data leads to inefficiencies in tracking leads, marketing missteps, and the inability to personalize outreach materials. The same concerns apply to nonprofits seeking to connect with supporters to increase engagement and boost donations.
To clean up your nonprofit database, here are five data hygiene steps to take:
- Conduct an audit of your nonprofit database.
- Remove unnecessary or harmful information.
- Take a closer look at the data you have left.
- Standardize processes for ongoing maintenance.
- Bring an expert on board to help.
Conducting a little data cleaning now will put you on the road to better donor engagement. You’ll have greater confidence that you’re communicating with real people who are excited to hear your message. Let’s take a closer look at each step!
1. Conduct an audit of your nonprofit database.
To start the process of cleaning up your database, first assess the current state of your data. With an audit, you can conduct an official review of your database to understand which areas contain the highest number of inaccuracies, what information is missing, and where there are gaps in your data. Recharity’s guide to data hygiene best practices explains that an audit provides a “high-level overview of your database’s health.”
To conduct a database audit:
- Identify problems you’re facing regarding data collection. What are the main issues your organization is facing that impede proper data collection? What are you looking to get out of the audit process? Identify these problems and goals up front so you can keep them in mind as you move through the rest of the audit process.
- Pinpoint unhelpful information. Some of your data points (pieces of information) are probably inaccurate, outdated, or completely incorrect. Make note of these points because this information is more harmful than helpful.
- Identify inconsistencies. Over the years, your team has probably gone through several different data input procedures, leading to different ways of uploading names, addresses, dates, and other types of information. Even if your process has stayed the same, there’s always the human error factor that can lead to variability. Use your audit to note any inconsistencies that have occurred.
- Share the findings with your team. After the audit is complete, ensure all stakeholders (such as your board members and development director) are aware of the findings and on board with moving to the next steps of the data hygiene process.
After reviewing your database from a bird’s-eye view, you’ll have a better idea of where you stand. This allows you to create a more accurate timeline and action plan for correcting irregularities and establishing better data procedures moving forward. Your nonprofit may even consider using an external source to audit your database, such as AlumniFinder’s free Data Quality Report, which provides a free analysis of the contact names, phone numbers, postal and email addresses, and dates of birth in your database.
2. Remove unnecessary or harmful information.
The audit process will reveal any information in your database that is irrelevant or extraneous. You don’t want to waste time and money sending marketing materials and messages to those who don’t want or aren’t able to engage with the information. Plus, you shouldn’t overload your database with useless information.
Examples of these unusable data points include:
- People on do not call lists: People who wish to opt out of telemarketing calls register with the National Do Not Call Registry. Businesses cannot call those who are listed on the registry. Nonprofits are generally exempt from these regulations, but if you partner with a commercial telemarketing company, you will have to comply with these guidelines. If this is the case for you, be sure to frequently scrub your call lists according to the registry.
- People on do not mail lists: Similarly, consumers who wish to not receive mail and emails from businesses can register with the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) website, DMAchoice. If you work with a direct mail provider, keep an eye out for those who have registered for this service and respect their wishes.
- Minors: Remove names of minors (those under 18) from your database. If you conduct direct marketing to children, you can be fined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
- Incarcerated individuals: Those who are currently within the prison system cannot respond to marketing materials. Remove the names of those currently held within federal and state prisons, county correctional facilities, and jails.
- Deceased persons: Remove any information about people who are now deceased. This helps prevent sending unwanted marketing materials to their family members.
When you eliminate this extraneous information, you’re left with a database that contains only information about those who are interested in hearing from you and able to respond to your messages. If you don’t know exactly where to start on a process like this, data hygiene providers, such as AccuData Integrated Marketing, can assist you with removing these types of records from your database or suppressing them from your direct marketing efforts.
In future data-gathering efforts, remember that more data isn’t necessarily better. It’s more important to focus on gathering high-quality information that will help you get in touch with interested audience members.
3. Take a closer look at the data you have left.
After you’ve eliminated unwanted information, assess your remaining data with a magnifying glass. Getting the small details right could be the difference between conducting a successful marketing campaign or wasting your marketing dollars on sending materials with inaccurate names, physical addresses, phone numbers, or email addresses.
In particular, it’s important to assess and correct the database errors you identified during the audit stage. Ensure your records are clean by:
- Eliminating duplicate entries: Perhaps you accidentally recorded information on the same donor twice, inputting a slightly different spelling of their name. Or, maybe a certain donor changed their name, and now you have two separate entries for the same individual. Verify the correct entry and eliminate any copies that might have popped up over the years.
- Standardizing mailing addresses: For instance, are some addresses written out with the full spelling of “Street” while others just have the abbreviation “St.?” Do some addresses use the standard five-digit postal code, while others use the ZIP+4 code? Take this opportunity to standardize all mailing addresses.
- Verifying email addresses: Scrub your email addresses to ensure all remaining addresses are real and active. This helps increase your email engagement rate and allows you to save time and resources by only sending newsletters and other messages to correct, active email addresses.
- Ensuring numbers and abbreviations are standardized: Besides just mailing addresses, you’ll want to make sure any numbers or abbreviations your team uses are standardized. This includes titles, ages, and any code words your team uses to categorize donors or prospects.
Taking a fine-tooth comb to your data helps correct small inconsistencies that can add up to large issues. Your team will have more confidence in your marketing strategy moving forward. Remember, data hygiene companies can assist with these processes too.
Plus, this adjustment process will also give you an idea of areas where you can enhance your database. Using a process like data append, you can add missing information to donor records for a more complete picture of your donor base. This information may include adding accurate phone numbers, email addresses, employment status, net worth, or details about philanthropic involvement.
For example, let’s say you’re looking to identify prospective major donors. You can use a data append to add information about a certain donor’s history of charitable giving to determine their affinity to give your cause and their ability to contribute a larger gift. This will give you a better idea of potential donors who are most likely to become major donors.
As you can see, cleaning your data can open a new world of possibilities to enhance your marketing efforts and target a more specific audience.
4. Standardize processes for ongoing maintenance.
To save yourself time and hassle in the future, it’s better to adopt continuous data hygiene practices than conduct occasional major cleanses. Set your team up for future success by creating an ongoing process for standardized data entry and maintenance. This includes:
- Standardizing data input practices. Outline the rules for team members to follow when they input new information into your nonprofit database. This includes procedures for inputting names, phone numbers, physical and email addresses, employment information, and all other relevant data points.
- Creating a data training process for staff members. Create a shared document that includes all the details team members need to use the database effectively. Review the process in a meeting or training seminar so everyone’s on the same page.
- Defining rules for handling errors. Mistakes are inevitable, but how will you correct them when they occur? Define this process and include it within your data input process documentation.
- Streamlining your donor-facing forms (like your newsletter sign-up page or online donation form) to only ask for essential information. This helps prevent the buildup of unnecessary or harmful data that clogs your database. By asking for only essential information, you can reduce the amount of extraneous information in your database.
These regulations don’t have to be set in stone. Check in with your team and review your database frequently to ensure all new measures are effective and make adjustments as necessary. By creating a centralized, uniform process up front, you’ll have a strong framework from which to make changes or updates as needed.
5. Bring an expert on board to help.
Establishing good data hygiene practices can be challenging, especially if your database isn’t in good shape to start with. Whether you’re an in-house marketing specialist for a nonprofit or an external marketer who’s been hired by a nonprofit, you may not have all the expertise needed to take a deep dive into the data review process.
If this is the case for you, it’s helpful to bring an expert on board to help you out.
Professionals that specialize in data hygiene can help set your team up with a concrete plan for future data management practices.
According to this blog post, database marketing specialists can assist with all of the processes above, plus provide services such as:
- Merge and purge: Identifying and combining or eliminating duplicate records in your database.
- File conversion: Converting files into useful formats according to your organization’s needs.
- A/B splits: Segmenting your data into groups to determine which marketing strategies are most effective.
- Parsing: Splitting up the elements of one record into separate fields in your database.
These are all advanced services that take a deep dive into your database and configure it based on your needs. Beyond just data hygiene services, data marketing firms also conduct data enhancement, audience building, targeted digital marketing, and other long-term marketing efforts, leaving you with a stronger framework for future campaigns.
By thoroughly cleaning your database and establishing standardized maintenance procedures, you can focus less on dealing with the effects of dirty data and more on making your marketing message stand out. Remember, a database marketing service provider might offer the push you need to carry out the data cleaning process more successfully. Good luck!
Gabrielle Perham is the Director of Marketing for AccuData Integrated Marketing. She joined the organization in 2017 and possesses more than 15 years of experience in strategic marketing, branding, communications, and digital marketing. She earned a B.S. in Marketing and an M.B.A in Marketing Management from the University of Tampa.