Database Best Practices, continued (It Depends, Part II)

In my last post, I discussed some best practices for the data entry in fundraising databases: keeping your data coded, simple, reportable and retrievable, and using common sense to guide your data entry decisions. And I promised to explore how you decide where to store specific kinds of data, and where else you can turn for specific solutions.

Most database packages will offer lots of fields, tabs and tables for you to populate with rich data about your constituents, gifts, memberships, volunteer jobs, contacts, events, etc. Some databases offer optional modules to track special events, grant proposals, and other information, and most databases will offer a number of “user-defined fields” (UDFs) – fields you can label and define to accommodate your specific business practices. And all of these options can be overwhelming.

So, begin with the easy decisions, the sorts of decisions which involve nothing more than coding your data so that it is easily reported and queried. This includes where and how to enter names, addresses, salutations, and gifts. Locate the place to flag anonymous donors; if one does not exist, use a user-defined field and select one which is easy to locate. Identify a user-defined field to store the name your donor wants to be printed in the annual report (if that applies to you). Then document these decisions and do not waver from them.

Will you ever need to query and report on all gifts to a fund by year? Or on every gift to a particular fund? Probably – and so you will need to decide whether to embed your fund codes with dates – OP14 – or if you can query using a gift date range. If you do use embedded dates in your fund codes, keep those dates consistent. That way you can query and report with wild cards to find all the gifts to the Operating fund – OP* – or all the 2014 gifts – *14.

Some of the most important data will be captured in your contact reports and moves management. Most fundraising databases will have a dedicated area for this data – for example, in The Raiser’s Edge it is kept on the Actions tab. The information you enter here not only creates an archive of your prospect’s relationship with your organization, it can also provide a rich trove of data for later data mining. The easiest way to approach coding contact reports in your database is to follow the solicitation cycle (identification, qualification, cultivation, solicitation, stewardship) and/or the grant cycle (letter of intent, proposal, progress report, final report). Don’t forget to have a few loose categories for those gray areas! Many of the contact reports you enter will begin life as calendar ticklers for meetings, phone calls, proposals and reports. Once the meeting or phone call takes place, or the proposal is submitted, don’t simply close or complete the record. Take the time to record what happened in a Note field – your database should provide a way to tie Notes to the contact report.

As I said, your contact reports can be data mined to great effect. Want to find funders for a new initiative? Think of key words tied to that initiative and search the notes in your call reports. For example, if you are building your first soccer field, search the call reports for mentions of soccer. This relatively simple query will find soccer parents, former soccer stars, perhaps even identify prospects who loathe soccer. Something which came up in casual conversation years ago, before soccer was ever on your radar, could suddenly become the key to finding a major donor! But that won’t happen if you don’t record the notes in the first place.

In my last post I also promised you some other places to turn for help:

  • Want to find a local consultant and your search engine just isn’t producing any results? Try an advanced search on LinkedIn, using the name of your database as the key word, and narrow the results with your zip code. It’s not necessarily the slickest tool, but you should find a few names to connect with, who may not have a website that would show up in search engine results.
  • Have a specific question but you don’t know where to turn? Join a listserv and post your questions. Gift processors often turn to FundSvcs, prospect researchers to PRSPCT-L, and data analysts to Prospect-DMM, but there are listservs for every aspect of philanthropy, and many can be found on Most listservs will let you lurk before you post, and this is a great way to discover tips and resources you may not have thought of on your own, and new people to connect with.
  • Use social media. Join a relevant group on LinkedIn – something tied to your database vendor, or to your niche in fundraising – and post your question. Tweet your question.

Each of these approaches has the potential to widen your professional network. And, perhaps the next question you see will be one you can answer!

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