It’s mid-April, and it’s clear that Covid-19 and its disruptions to our daily life aren’t going anywhere fast. By now, the vast majority of organizations—corporate and nonprofit alike—have gone through the task of contacting their subscribers and donors over email, informing everyone of event cancelations, programmatic shifts, and policy changes made in attempts to slow the spread of the virus and protect clients and employees.

In order to stay “near, dear, and clear” with your donors, these communications are important and, while you don’t want to send too many, it is vital to keep in touch with your allies and supporters.

Now, a question for you, and be honest with yourself:

How hard was it to pull those lists out of your database? Were you able to segment it by donor versus subscriber pretty easily? What about by donor value? How many days did you spend getting the lists right before you were able to send the message? How many employees had to work through the weekend or late into the night to get those communications out in a timely fashion? What will the process look like if—or rather, when—you need to go through it again?

If you answered, “it was easy, pulled it off in a day with no mistakes,” then the rest of this article is not for you. But I have my doubts that there are many nonprofits that can honestly give that answer.

The thing about a time of crisis is that is has a keen way of highlighting all the existing flaws in your organization’s operations, including in your customer relationship management tool (CRM). There are countless basic problems (like missing a first name) and many complex issues, like attaching soft credit to the right individual for an anonymous DAF gift. Indeed, there are countless ways that your database can you let you down, and this comes to the fore when you’re trying to work quickly.

And so, I pose to you a challenge: in our normal, daily, pre-March 2020 lives, there was a lot of time spent travelling to meet with donors, commuting to and from an office, and gathering around the water cooler with colleagues. That time is now open, and I urge you to spend just a few hours each week working on your data integrity and hygiene.

Of all the organizations I’ve worked for and with, I don’t know of a single one that doesn’t have a back-burner data-cleanup project lurking on the proverbial stove. Perhaps you really need to build out a way to track foundation applications and grants. Perhaps you need to devise a better system for tracking donor club membership and fulfillment. Perhaps your development officers have been remiss in entering their meeting notes into the system. Perhaps you have a series of ostensibly useful dashboards that simply aren’t pulling the right data anymore because your organization has changed the way you operate since you set them up. Perhaps you have been meaning to introduce new ways to segment your list to enhance your mailing flexibility but just haven’t found the time. Perhaps… and this list goes on.

There is no time like the present! If you’re a regional development officer, pull your portfolio and start combing through it for data accuracy. If you’re a direct marketing guru, start thinking about the lists you wish you were able to pull, and talk to your database team about building out those systems within your CRM. If you’re the foundations manager, make sure you’ve got records in the database of LOIs, proposals, and grant agreements. If you’re a development director, talk to the person who pulls your lists about what steps need to be taken to improve the process moving forward, and set a concrete timeline for making those changes. If you’re on the finance side, take a few hours to make sure your QuickBooks and CRM are reconciled, and if not, identify the problems and find solutions.

I know how this goes. I once had a situation arise where every major donor—including the anonymous ones—received a “call to action” email intended for a grassroots audience. The immediate steps we took to make sure that never happened again involved actually taking information OUT of the database temporarily while we figured out what had triggered the problem. I assure you—it was not a convenient time to focus on data integrity, but the development director took it seriously, implementing a new CRM and a series of strict policies (and incentives) for maintaining data integrity in the new system. I’m not going to say it was a flawless success—there were stumbling blocks—but we never accidentally sent constituent communications to anonymous, six-figure donors again. And I doubt they have since.

The bottom line is this: When it comes to your CRM, it’s a “garbage in, garbage out” system. If you don’t take the time put in the right information, you won’t be able to get the right information out. So I urge you again: don’t give up on your CRM. Double down on it now, before the next crisis—and before you are back in “normal” mode and need to pull data without a headache.

And if you find that this article is irrelevant to you because you are working off of excel spreadsheets—please drop me a line. I would be happy to talk through better data solutions for you and your organization.


If I can be a resource as you work to assess your database and development situation, please feel free to email me at cdiem@americanphilanthropic.com.

For the next several weeks, Philanthropy Daily will be a resource for fundraisers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back daily for new articles addressing news about coronavirus and philanthropy and providing strategic and practical recommendations for weathering this storm as a fundraiser.

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