Know Thy Donors

There are approximately 1.4 million nonprofits in the US, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, and fewer than 50,000 or so use any type of professional fundraising and constituent relationship management (CRM) software. I don’t remember where I took that from, but it was an astounding statistic. More astounding though, is of those 50,000 who do use CRM software, I’m guessing that less than half use it to any purpose beyond as a mailing list.

While you can raise serious money without the help of software, you can raise even more money with the support of your donor database (and no, Excel is not a database—it’s a spreadsheet a cousin but not kissing).

Indeed, next to a well-connected and willing board, your database is your best fundraising friend.

Making friends—at least building relationships—is essentially what development is all about. Used well, your database can help you:

  • Decide who your best prospect for building that relationship might be
  • Keep track of the “moves” or steps you (or someone else) has taken with this prospect
  • Understand what motivates this prospect by seeing how they give, for what, and when.

It should also be your organization’s memory.

So what should be kept in your database? In a word: Everything. As much data as you can find about your donors or prospects belongs in your database, as does everything—every single thing—that ties to their interest in and involvement with your organization. This includes every invitation, every yes, and every no. Every gift regardless of size. How they made the gift, what they responded to, when they responded. Were they a client or student? When? What about their sons, daughters, sisters and brothers?

As much as possible, you also want their personal information. Beyond where they live and where they work and what their title is, if you can, find out their birthdates, their educational experiences, whether or not they served in the military.

One wonderful way to find out information and keep in touch is to send out a “database cleanup” questionnaire.

This is exactly what it sounds like—you send a letter or email to your constituents, telling them you are cleaning up their database and would really appreciate their help.

You can enclose a survey or send them to a site online where they can accept, edit, add or delete information.

Start by asking them to review their contact information and make any necessary changes or additions. Make sure you put a space for email address! I would also suggest giving a place to check off what kinds of information they want and how they want to receive this information. Again, limit their choices to 3-5 types of information. For example,

_____Information about our organization’s programs

______What’s happening at (our organization)

______Volunteer opportunities

Now you are ready to find out more about your donors. Keep the questions to a minimum, no more than 10. And figure out what you want to know. If you have information, fill it in. Whether you are leaving space for them to add or change information, leave enough space that they have room to write, and you will be able to read what they write.

If your constituent is a couple, make sure you are getting information for each. If you don’t know if there is a spouse or life partner, this is your opportunity to find out.

As the questionnaires come back to you, make sure you:

A. Update your database

B. Thank those who responded

C. Follow up with those who didn’t by reminding them of the importance of this activity.

Now, armed with this information, start planning how you will most effectively use your new and improved knowledge.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and better engage their boards. Learn how she can help you at Email her at