Keeping Track

Many, many years ago, my first husband bought one of the first models of the IBM PC, hooked it to a modem, and waited for it to do something.  Which, of course, it didn’t.  I often think of that as I talk with clients—those (alas, too few) who actually have donor databases—about how they are using their constituent relationship systems (CRM). By and large, they are not. They are either using these systems as a mailing list, and/or as a secondary accounting system.  Neither are what these systems are meant to be.

A CRM is a way for you to learn about your donors, understand what they care about, how they respond to you, create meaningful relationships with them.  But the CRM itself doesn’t do a thing.  It’s how you configure it; populate it; use it that can make a true difference in your fundraising.

To begin, you must make clear decisions about how fields are defined and what you will using various elements of the database for.  Data entry has to be standardized and you must have a regular accuracy check.  I always recommend weekly reports showing what has been entered, by whom, with an eye to catch and fix errors immediately.

Typically, in a CRM, you are looking at Constituent records and Gift Records.  The more information you put in your constituent record, the more helpful your database will be.  Not only can you with most software packages identify who you are sending something to, you can personalize the way you address them. The more personal you can get, the more likely someone is to pay attention to what you are writing.

Fundraising is all about getting up close and personal.  Your CRM can help you do that, but only if you are inputting important information. Think about all the things you’d love to know about your donors—and then think about where you would store that information so you can get it out.

Getting information out is one of the big issues with CRM software.  Wrongly input, information can get “stuck,” unable to be extracted in helpful ways.  While some things will only be important for that particular constituent and used only when you are developing a specific donor profile, other information you’ll want to be able to query on and pull reports. These will not only go into different places in your database, they will be stored differently.

A contact report can be written in paragraphs or bullet form.  You’ll want that information as you are creating a cultivation plan or looking to reconnect with that donor.  Who was a former board president, however, is probably something you’d like to be able to query and pull out a list of all former board presidents.

As you consider what CRM to buy, how to update what you have, whatever your database situation, first consider how you will want to use this tool.  And from there, you can build a roadmap to help you to get there.

Just remember, IT won’t do a thing without your guidance.

Janet Levine works to help nonprofits move from mired to inspired.  She can help your organization increase its fundraising, empower your board, train your staff.  Find out how at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet about a free 30-minute phone or zoom consultation.