Written By: Carl Diesing - Nov 6, 2018
Blog6 min read

5 Steps to Improve Your Nonprofit’s Data Management Habits

The importance of data to the operations of truly successful nonprofit organizations can’t be overstated.

While its guiding mission is your organization’s primary driving force, all the donor and constituent data you record and analyze along the way is what fuels your movement and gives you traction for growth.

In our digital age, nonprofits of all sizes are now aware of the importance of analytics and tracking key performance metrics, but simply recording them isn’t enough. Your nonprofit’s data must be actively managed in order to yield maximum benefits.

Organizations that adopt new management and fundraising tools all too often neglect to update their data practices, which can lead to serious issues down the road. As nonprofit technology experts, we here at DNL OmniMedia advise our nonprofit clients on best practices and strategies for data management because we know firsthand how crucial healthy data habits can be for growing organizations.

There are a few core steps that your nonprofit should follow whenever it’s time for data management updates:

  1. Choose the right database for your organization.
  2. Focus on CRM integrations and plugins.
  3. Think carefully about what data you want to track.
  4. Review good data hygiene habits with your team.
  5. Consider the transparency of your data practices.

According to this year’s report on global NGO technology, only about 45% of nonprofits use CRM or database software to track their donations and manage their communication strategies. With all the benefits that properly managed data stored in a central location can bring to an organization, that statistic is a little surprising.

If your organization could use a data management refresher or is preparing to implement its first professional-grade data tools, we’ll cover the basics to get you started. Let’s dive in:

1. Choose the right database for your organization.

Your organization’s CRM, or constituent relationship management software, isn’t just an important tool for your data management; it should be the foundation on which you build your entire data strategy.

If your organization is among the 45% that already uses one, you understand how valuable a CRM can be, but if not, your team should start exploring its options now.

CRM software and nonprofit databases come in all shapes in sizes, so even smaller organizations can find an affordable and manageable solution. No matter what type of CRM software you choose, look for essential features like these:

  • Comprehensive database capabilities
  • Automatically populated and customizable donor profiles
  • Scalable options to accommodate growth
  • Built-in analytics tools or report dashboards
  • List segmentation options and donor engagement trackers

Any effective CRM will offer these types of features, from the most lightweight database solutions for small nonprofits to heavy-duty Blackbaud solutions for national organizations. If your current CRM falls short in any of the above categories or has become more of a problem to be worked around than a solution to streamline your operations, it’s time for an update.

Bloomerang’s beginner’s guide to choosing a CRM is a great starting point for those who are completely new to professional database software. For more experienced organizations, conduct some research on your own, or reach out to technology consultants who work with nonprofit software for suggested solutions and custom implementations.

2. Focus on CRM integrations and plugins.

Once your organization has a firm data foundation in its CRM, your team needs to take the time to ensure you’re getting as much value out of your investment as possible.

Integrations, apps, and plugins are essential pieces of the data management equation, especially for growing organizations that need to scale up their toolboxes. CRM integrations are particularly important for ensuring your data habits stay healthy in the long run.

A database is only truly useful for your organization if it’s the central location for all of your data. Ideally, every platform or tool you use should report directly to your database. Otherwise, you risk losing valuable insights as pieces of data from a fundraising campaign or outreach project fall through the cracks.

Any tools you use that generate new donation or engagement data should report to your database. For most nonprofits, these include:

  • An email client or other marketing automation tools
  • Fundraising software and online fundraising platforms
  • Website-building or CMS platforms

If your organization has invested in an enterprise-level CRM, these functions are likely built into your more comprehensive data management system. If that’s the case, larger products like Salesforce or the Blackbaud suite usually require more customized development and configuration.

Explore TeamDNL’s rundown of the Blackbaud support and customization process for more context on how a tech consultant can develop custom integrations that ensure you’re making the most of your valuable data.

3. Think carefully about what data you want to track.

You already know some of the important donation and engagement metrics that you need to measure in order to effectively track your progress and learn more from your campaigns; some of these are self-evidently important, like donor name, contact information, donation amount, and other campaign involvement notes.

However, part of strong nonprofit data management involves knowing what additional metrics can be valuable to your operations. If your other digital tools are integrated with your CRM, this should be a breeze. Consider these examples:

  • Marketing engagement. Tracking how many and which donors engage with your various marketing campaigns is invaluable for planning future efforts and segmenting mailing lists.
  • Prospect research data. Whether you use a database wealth screening service, consultant researchers, or your in-house development team, all of your important prospective major donor data should be organized in individual profiles.
  • Donor employment information. Include an ‘employer’ field on your integrated online donation forms or member surveys. Some of your supporters likely work for top matching gift or volunteer grant companies!

Make sure that your CRM system allows you to fully customize your donor profiles to accommodate any new data points that become relevant to your relationship with them.
For instance, growing nonprofits developing membership and volunteer programs need the ability to carefully track cross-program engagement metrics as donors become members become volunteers.

4. Review good data hygiene habits with your team.

The phrase may sound strange to those unfamiliar with professional database practices, but data hygiene is an essential part of properly managing your nonprofit’s operations. You need to ensure that every member of your team who engages directly with your database follows the same set of standardized data entry and management protocols.

There are a few reasons for this. When all new data is reported and entered in a standardized way, it becomes possible to easily filter and sort through it to find exactly what you need. It also ensures that anyone familiar with your system will understand the data and its formatting, not just the person who initially entered it.

There are a few core practices that should be ingrained in your team’s approach to data:

  • Eliminate invalid contact information whenever it’s encountered.
  • Delete or merge duplicate entries to avoid wasting time and money.
  • Remove inactive donor profiles that haven’t engaged with your work in the past two years or so.
  • Backup or archive your database on a regular basis.
  • Create a schedule for conducting regular data audits.

If your nonprofit already understands the value of tracking key analytics and integrating the rest of your tools with your database, it’s essential that you maintain strong data hygiene, as well. Poorly managed data can become a serious liability for organizations, as incorrect information and duplicate entries hinder their ability to effectively target their mailing lists, for example.

5. Consider the transparency of your data practices.

When any organization accepts and processes sensitive information from its constituents, be they customers or donors, proper stewardship of that data is crucial.

Professional database software should always include plenty of security features and automatic encryption tools, as should any other online fundraising tools you use to engage directly with supporters. Properly stewarding their data will go a long way to earning their trust and building stronger relationships with your community as a whole.

However, stewardship and trust-building involve more than just security. Consider the transparency of your data practices, too.

Data democratization’ is generally a smart move for any organization. Avoid creating separate data silos to ensure that the big picture of your strategies and development is accessible to those on your team who need it.

Think about ways to offer your donors and supporters more say in how you use their data to interact with them. An easy way to show your respect for a donor’s wishes is to ask for their preferred method of communication and give them an easy option to unsubscribe from newsletters if they want.

For organizations with membership programs, look for management software that gives members the ability to edit their own profiles. This way your contact information stays more up-to-date and members feel more directly engaged with your program.

Your nonprofit’s database is among its most valuable resources. A well-managed CRM system that’s frequently updated, cleaned, and integrated with all the important tools you use is probably the single most important investment you can make in your organization’s growth and success.

Whether you need to upgrade your current data management system or implement your first professional-grade solution, it’s important that your whole team understands the importance of strong data management.

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About Carl Diesing

Carl Diesing, Managing Director – Carl co-founded DNL OmniMedia in 2006 and has grown the team to accommodate clients with on-going web development projects. Together DNL OmniMedia has worked with over 100 organizations to assist them with accomplishing their online goals. As Managing Director of DNL OmniMedia, Carl works with nonprofits and their technology to foster fundraising, create awareness, cure disease, and solve social issues. Carl lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their two children Charlie and Evelyn.