Are you wasting your donor database? Make the Switch today

by Kevin Martone, Technology Program Manager, JCamp 180

Why invest so much time and money into a donor database if you don't utilize it effectively to achieve fundraising and outreach benefits?

Would you put the same kind of effort into other things in your life only to ignore the benefits? For example, my brother has a beautiful lawn. It is a lush green carpet, no dandelions or crabgrass to be found. His lawn takes time and effort to maintain - spreading organic fertilizers, pulling the pesky dandelions that periodically appear by the roots, and watering the lawn when needed.

Can you imagine this lawn being ignored? What would be the point of putting all of this work into his backyard, if it lay idle all summer? Instead, his 2-year-old daughter spends hours in the yard, putting on tea parties, running after bubbles, and exploring the soft texture of the grass.

So why do so many camps spend the time to collect and clean gift and contact information in their databases, only to leave them dormant, their promise so thoroughly neglected? I know most of you now understand the value of the deep connections forged at camp with alumni and other supporters. And if you are taking the time to read this, I am betting that your camp is thinking about strategies for finding lost alumni. Most of you have established systems for entering data. Perhaps you've spent time creating and promoting online forms for your alumni to enter their information online. And you've learned to enter each donor and gift into your database down to the detailed Campaign and Solicitation method*.

That's the good news of your hard work over the past few years. The bad news? Many of you don't then "reap" the bounty of this fertile information. The data sits there, clean and shiny, but it isn't used effectively for building relationships and fundraising. Why not?

I believe the main reason is knowledge. Many camps simply haven't taken the time to learn how to utilize the power of donor databases effectively. Databases should be used to create reports that provide insight into your donors. What kinds of reports am I talking about? For example:

  • Who are the donors who gave last year but not this year … and how do we contact them?
  • Which donors have given less/more this year compared to last year?
  • How many more donors do we have this year over past years?
  • What Stewardship activities have been performed for our top donors during the past year ... and by whom?​

Why wouldn't you learn how to use the functionality in your donor database, including running these helpful reports? Because change is hard. For years, camps did not raise money consistently, so it's not surprising that it would take time and effort to build a culture of philanthropy and become proficient in fundraising tools. Reconnecting with alumni and collecting their contact information? That's easy - community and relationships are built into the fabric of camp culture. But running reports to analyze the most likely donors to your Annual Campaign? Or efficiently updating data only once and reimporting the changes into your database? Those tasks weren't even on the radar until recently. Still, the question remains: why would someone spend so much time managing data, but not take the follow-up step to USE that data, even if it means taking time to learn a new, useful skill?

In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, the authors discuss the difficulties people encounter in trying to change. They describe it using the visual of a Rider (your rational side) trying to guide an Elephant (your emotional side). When you want to change, you need to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and "Shape the Path" to your new reality. The Rider can't force an Elephant to go its way - the Rider gets easily exhausted and often succumbs, allowing the Elephant to lead him back on its old, non-optimal path. Think of the last time you tried to lose weight and how difficult it was to keep on track even though a healthier lifestyle is clearly your best option. The Rider thinks of your lower cholesterol and how good you'll feel in your new bathing suit next summer. The Elephant thinks about how good that ice cream sundae will taste NOW. The Rider can often win the first few times, but eventually the Elephant rules the day, enjoying that delicious hot fudge sundae. The book offers many strategies to guide the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and Shape the Path to the change you hope to achieve.

So, what does this have to do with your donor database? Beginning to use your donor database takes a big change. It's simpler initially to do what you've always done - create a new spreadsheet for every mailing you have to send, manually calculate your total giving for the year, etc. - rather than taking the time to commit to the new database and learn how to use it effectively. A few of the methods described in Switch can help you motivate your Elephant and Shape Your Path:

  1. Shrink the Change. Take baby steps. You don't have to import every single historical gift into your database today. Instead, make small improvements. Decide to run your next mailing from your donor database. If you need to make any changes, import those changes back into the system so your next mailing will run smoothly.
  2. Find the Bright Spots. Is there anything working with the donor database? Can you quickly run a report of all donors who gave last year but not this year (LYBUNT), thus uncovering a group of highly likely donors if asked? Just find one thing you can do with the system that makes your work more effective. Replicate that effort with additional reports or functions. Want to create your own new bright spot? Try just one of the tasks we mention in our Donor Database Spring Cleaning article: a LYBUNT report to cherry-pick most likely donors; a Stewardship Report to track your latest Stewardship activities with donors; or a Board Giving Report to allow you to work with your Board President to ensure 100% Board participation in this year's Annual Campaign.
  3. Build Habits - Use Action Triggers. Telling yourself, "I'll learn how to run reports in the database next week" is too general and doomed to failure. Something will inevitably knock you off course. Instead, set a very specific Action Trigger to determine your tasks. For example, one camp director has been setting a regular meeting - at a specific date/time - with the Technology Program Team to discuss reports and filters in DonorPerfect Online.

Don't waste all of your hard work. Start making your Switch today!

*If you are not taking care of your alumni, donor, and gift data in this way, please contact the Technology Program today!!! We've got work to do, we are here to help you, and not another day should pass before fixing this significant problem.