Data In – Profile Out

It should come as no secret that I am a proponent of automating the prospect research profile as much as possible. In fact, in my final presidential column for the APRA Wisconsin newsletter, just about a year ago, that was just one of the paths down which I suggested so-called reactive research would need to head. I won’t rehash what I wrote then; you can read it here.

Of course, it was easy then for me to extol automation. For one thing, it had been over a decade since I had actually typed a profile in a Word template. For another, I was a member of one of Wisconsin’s largest prospect research teams, and had easy access to our database, and several profile report formats, from work or from home.

Now that I am consulting, things are very different. I am still not typing profiles in Word templates, but it is something I consider a possibility, now that more of my work is done remotely and without direct database access. But when I am asked for recommendations, I always try first to find a database solution.

One of my current clients, an independent school, uses The Raiser’s Edge, and had already created a Word merge to pull some individual prospect data – gift summaries, children, contact information, etc. – into a Word document. They didn’t call this a profile, and the task they wanted my help with was in gathering biographic and professional information on each prospect into a brief paragraph which they could type into their Word document. I immediately thought we should put this background information into a Note in The Raiser’s Edge and to add that Note type to their merge template. Creating this new Note type accomplished two things. One, the information was easily retrieved into their prospect document. Two, it was captured in the database to refer to in the future. Best of all, it was easy to add the new Note into the merge file, and even easier to create the new note type.

Fast forward a month or two, and this client now wanted a way to codify foundation interests and to identify potential donors to new capital and programming initiatives. Using the Philanthropic Interests table on the Prospect tab in The Raiser’s Edge was the easy part. It didn’t even take us that long to come up with a list of about 20 different interest areas we’d like to track and be able to query.

But how to capture nonprofit board service, volunteer roles, and gifts to other organizations? Well the Prospect tab of The Raiser’s Edge has a Gifts to Other Organizations table, and my client had already populated it with information from past screenings and data appends. One look at how that table structures data, though, and we could see it would not be our answer this time. For one thing, there isn’t an easy way to enter the dollar ranges found most often on nonprofit annual reports. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Gifts to Other Organizations table does not have a way to visually and strategically connect giving patterns to things like board service or a spouse’s volunteering. A simple Note can do all of that, and can be formatted to export easily into a Word merge or a Crystal Report.

Our solution this time was to create two more Note types. A Philanthropic Note was used to document board and volunteer service, and significant gifts (generally gifts above $1,000). And a Foundation Note was used to capture basic Form 990 information including assets, gifts received and grants paid, a list of directors and officers, and a brief list of the largest grants made. Both of these notes were added to their existing Word merge template, along with the background information note, to form a simple and easily editable, profile.

Each note in The Raiser’s Edge has a Description field, and with our Background, Philanthropic, and Foundation Notes we used this Description field to track the date when the information was last updated. Now, before running a profile report, anyone can quickly see how stale the information might be, and what they might need to refresh.

Once upon a time, a profile may have been a catalog of everything we knew about the prospect. More often today, a profile is strategically designed for a specific purpose and context. Often a profile may not be the only way to answer a question, or it may not be the best way. Each of these philosophies and situations could be satisfied with either a typed document or a database report. Some might even be happy with an email. But I bet they would all agree that if something is in the profile it should also be in the database. Indeed, the profile template should serve to remind us of the categories of information we need to capture and verify, just as a research checklist reminds us to leave no stone unturned. And when profile information is in the database, it can also be used to create prospect pools, or to do data mining or modeling, or simply to help those who follow you understand your prospects as well as you do.



Giving Thanks

snow - cropped (4)

April may be the cruelest month, but November – with Veterans Day, National Philanthropy Day®, and Thanksgiving – may just be the most appreciative.

 Years ago, gift processing was a large part of my job, especially at the end of the year. Back then, part of me always dreaded this time of year – as the amount of daylight got ever shorter, the length of my working hours got ever longer. And while my co-workers were using their remaining vacation time for last minute errands, I was rolling mine over into the New Year. And yet, even though I was doing a lot of data entry, booking all those year-end gifts, I also got to do one of the most special things we can do in fundraising. I got to thank people – a lot of people.

 I’ve used this quote before, but I never get tired of it. A colleague at one of my favorite organizations says that gift processing should really be called “gift stewardship.” Indeed, stewardship and gratitude often begin long before a gift is made, and continue with properly booking the gift, but they come to fruition in the thank you letter. And letter it should be. A thank you on the landing page after an online gift is submitted, an automated email, or even a printed receipt will bring efficiencies to your process, but how different do they make you from Amazon? Those automated acknowledgements are simply too transactional. They are just too much about the tax language and not nearly enough about the donor’s very personal philanthropy or aspirations. To my mind nothing beats a real letter for expressing gratitude and building the relationship.

 So take a pause after you run the acknowledgement mail merge. Think of this moment as an opportunity. You’ve probably already customized your merge template to allow you to segment your acknowledgments so that your text is matched to donor intent. And once your file is output to the word processing program, you will make sure the right name or nickname is in the salutation, the gift amount and allocation are correct, and that there are no typos or weird merge effects. But you should also take this opportunity to make the letters more personal. Longstanding donors? Add a word or phrase which recognizes and appreciates their loyalty and faith in what you do. New donors? Thank them for deciding to place their trust in you to help them achieve their vision.

 A letter offers an additional opportunity that no electronic communication ever can. You can add a handwritten note. Back in my gift processing days, I attached a sticky note to the letters with little nuggets about the donors (“donor since ’95,” “3rd gift this year,” “father was a trustee,” “missed the gala for the 1st time in 7 years.”). This gave the agency’s president, who signed all of our acknowledgements, a quick reminder whenever there was something special to acknowledge in a handwritten note.

 In the last few weeks I’ve come full circle, back to writing thank you letters, this time to help steward my client’s scholarship donors. And I’m thankful that, once again, as the days grow shorter and colder, and friends and families gather closer, I get to use my time to thank others.


Spelling Counts

In the fundraising niche where I do most of my work, donor-centricity requires effective database management and attention to detail: data entry standards, quality control measures, and thoughtful, respectful documentation of donor information. But speaking as a former English teacher, in every area of effective database management, spelling really does count.

Penelope Burk and Cygnus Applied Research created the concept of “donor-centered fundraising” based their 1997 survey which showed:

87% of Cygnus’ study respondents said they would give again the next time they were asked, 64% would make a larger gift, and 74% would continue to give indefinitely, if they received the following every time they made a gift:

  1. prompt, meaningful acknowledgment of their gifts
  2. reassurance that their gifts will be directed as donors intend
  3. meaningful results on their gifts at work, before they are asked for another contribution


To ensure that the three guarantees of ongoing giving identified in the Cygnus study, proper stewardship often begins before the first gift is even made. Proper stewardship begins with good spelling.

The donor’s name must always be spelled correctly – and that means as they have chosen to spell it. Don’t assume. And if you did initially enter it incorrectly, change it when you receive the first correspondence or the first gift. (And yes, I’ve seen a $1M proposal sent out with names misspelled. I just wish my red pen and I had seen it before it was sent.)

Proper spelling goes beyond proper names. The post office may not deliver mail which carries an incorrectly spelled or formatted address; messages will not be received by misspelled email addresses or mistyped phone numbers. Misspellings in prospect research deliverables or contact reports may simply embarrass the writer among their colleagues, or worse, convey and perpetuate incorrect information. Query and reporting syntax will nearly always require the correct spelling; the hardest searches to effectively run are the ones where the search criteria or the source data contain typos. It is essential to develop data entry standards, quality control processes, exception reports, and data update schedules, but it is just as critical to correct individual errors whenever and wherever you spot them – that’s true donor-centricity.

More broadly speaking, isn’t “spelling” just another word for meticulous data entry and strong data integrity? In fundraising, names and contact information are where precise data entry begins, but gift entry and acknowledgement are where scrupulous data entry practices must flourish. As a colleague of mine said recently, “gift processing should really be called gift stewardship.” Individual gifts must be accurately entered; attributed to the correct donor; allocated to the proper funds, campaigns, appeals, proposals, events, memorials, tributes, and matching gifts; receipted for the correct legal amount; and thoughtfully, meaningfully, and promptly acknowledged with the donor’s preferred salutation and address correctly spelled. Tracking fundraising results absolutely depends on accurate gift entry, and confidently communicating success and sustainability to donors and stakeholders is another aspect of stewardship.

Finally, “spelling counts” not simply because it is required by your finance team or the IRS, or by your own pride and responsibility, but because it matters to donors: it is a measure of care and respect.


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!

It Depends…..

Fundraising and databases aren’t always easy friends. Databases, after all, are binary – every data point is essentially a combination of yesses and nos, trues and falses. Fundraising, other hand, exists in gradients and increments, in the kind-of/sort-of world of relationships, affinities, and transformations.

Ask a database vendor the right way to do things, and their response is more than likely to be “it depends.” That’s not because they don’t know the database inside and out, but because the best fundraising databases, right out of the box, will only ever approximate your organization’s business practices. How you have overlaid the database software on your fundraising culture is likely to be very specific to your organization. The best vendors know that what is good enough for you may in fact work only for you, and what works best for someone else will never fly in your office.

That does not mean that there aren’t any database “best practices.” Just that these “best practices” won’t be data entry rules or query prescriptives that a vendor simply hands over to their customers. The most basic thing to keep in mind is to keep your data consistent: coded, simple, retrievable and reportable, and to follow common sense.

Consistent data is more easily queried, makes data entry quicker, and keeps the post office happy. Consistent data follows a set of rules, like the rules for addresses, which can mitigate the need to make ad hoc decisions leading to sloppy data.

Coded: Codes and table-driven data entry drives data consistency while eliminating error and saving time. At the very least, your database should have a set of fund codes (and, yes, how you build those codes will depend on you!), constituency codes, codes for any “type,” “status,” and “category” fields you have elected to use, rating codes and many more. A general database “best practice” is to limit who can create and edit those codes, and to be sure the codes themselves follow a set of rules in how they are structured.

Simple: Keeping those codes simple will have a great many pleasant ramifications for you. Think about the state codes used by the post office: why type “Wisc” when “WI” will do the trick and is enough to distinguish Wisconsin from Wyoming, West Virginia and Washington? Simple coding structures will have a small impact on the size of your database, but more importantly they will make reporting, querying and data analysis much easier.

Reportable and Retrievable: Perhaps most important, consistent data is more easily reported on and retrieved. A general “best practice” rule to help you develop consistent data entry procedures is to always think first of how you want to get the data back out. What reports will you want from the data you are entering, and how will you want the data on those reports to be selected, sorted and formatted? Will you be creating mailing lists or other data segmentations based on data elements your constituents have in common? Will you want to do data analysis and data mining – will your data allow the use of wildcards, can calculations be performed on it and/or scores derived from it? Will you be pulling database fields into mail merge documents, how will you want those fields to look, and will you be applying conditional formatting in your mail merge? For any of these data retrieval needs, how do you need to have data located in different areas (tabs, code tables) of the database to interact?

Common Sense: But it is also important to use common sense when developing consistent coding and data entry rules. For example, if executive bios are always entered in a Note field with a description or type (pulled from a code table) of “Exec Bio,” they can be easily included in a database report or profile based on that common, consistent data element, and the report can be designed to locate the bio in the same place for every constituent. If you have also developed database rules governing the data entry of those executive bios, a pile of profile reports will be easier to read – the data will always have the same basic types of information in the same place. On the other hand, you may not be capturing executive bios all that often, and they may never be reviewed in a large group. In that case, you may not want to spend the time and energy to develop a standard format to capture the data, and the time and energy to enforce data entry which subscribes to those rules. In that case, the database rule you may wish to develop is to copy the bio from the source, to include proper attribution and the date captured, and to spend a minute or two editing it for clarity. Enforcing data consistency must always be tempered by common sense and informed by your fundraising culture.

Finally, a key component of consistent data entry is to decide which fields and tabs in your database are used to capture which data elements. The more complex your database is “out of the box,” the more difficult that decision making process can be. Plotting out how you foresee retrieving the data is the most important first step. One more fundraising database “best practice” which can help guide those decisions is to distinguish between the data elements which describe your prospect and the data elements which describe the prospect’s relationship to your organization, and to use those distinctions to design where each data point should go. My next post will explore these differences and how they can help you develop database rules and procedures for your organization, and where else you may want to turn when you need help and your vendor says, “it depends.”