Prioritizing Data During Times of Stress and Chaos.

I love software, I love data, and I love getting lost down the rabbit hole of how we can slice, dice, and design data. However, I realize that not everyone shares my same enthusiasm — sometimes data projects can be too much for nonprofits to manage. 

In times of crisis, data collection is often one of the first things to go by the wayside. Nonprofits may be facing staffing shortages, budget cuts that affect software purchases, or be stretched too thin to properly document data. Even when nonprofits aren’t operating in crisis mode, it can be challenging to dedicate the time and resources needed to keep data records up to date.

As fundraising professionals, we’ve all experienced the pain of an incomplete donor record. Or worse — no donor records at all. Proper data documentation is an essential component of fundraising because it provides the history and context needed to successfully solicit gifts.

For nonprofits who haven’t made data a priority and don’t know where to start, I’m here to help. The thing is that data work doesn’t need to be overwhelming. You don’t have to document everything right now — you just need to assess your basic needs and work out from there.

Given the staffing and resource constraints that many organizations are feeling lately, data should be kept simple and usable. For some nonprofits, it may be time to reevaluate time intensive or expensive tools that cost more than you can afford and stick with the basics — data practices that everyone can and should do.

When your organization is feeling the pinch, it’s time to boil it down to the big W’s: Who, What, When, Why, and Where. These simple categories can be the “checklist” to frame how you approach your basic data collection.

The following priority areas for data collection provide examples of how to incorporate the big W’s into your process.

Constituent Entry:

Constituents must always have the basics entered, so use a template to make sure you have the information you need right from the start. You’ll always need a full name or company name (Who), a mailing address (Where), and if they’re a donor/prospect/volunteer/board member (What or Why).

The timing (When) of when constituents are added to the system can be prioritized differently based on the constraints of your staffing and technology. For example, you might limit the number of new prospects added until you have a team that can take on a larger portfolio. In that case, you may start looking to reengage donors who have lapsed in their giving rather than adding more to the system. This might also be an opportunity to look into if the software you already have, like a webpage with online donations, has features to download constituents into your database on a schedule rather than doing manual entry. Click here for a new constituent entry template and basic constituent entry checklist.

Gift Entry:

Gift entry is the most non-negotiable part of data collection because we must ensure accountability to our donors, the IRS, and those we serve. Whether you are entering gifts into fundraising software or tracking them in a spreadsheet (not my favorite option but we can talk about that another time), you’ll need to know the name of the donor (Who), the gift amount (What), if the gift is designated (Where), the date of the gift (When), and the donor’s reason for making the gift (Why). We may not always know the “why,” but it is valuable information because it can help you make educated decisions on what campaign methods to invest time and money in. Click here for a basic gift entry template.

Meeting Notes:

This is where a lot of folks start to groan but believe me when I say this is for the good of everyone! Keeping brief but informative notes helps continue a relationship that is already in process. The trick is to use the W’s to frame your narrative so that other development staff have context for the next time they get involved. This does not have to be an epic poem of your fabulous donor encounter. Instead, provide a sentence or two for each of the W’s then move on.

For example, you could do a quick write up saying something like “I met with Sally Smith from the Paper Company (Who) on 1/21/2021 (When). I shared about the advocacy program successes (What) and she seemed interested in potential sponsorship (Why). She’s not ready to make a personal gift but we should apply during the next grant cycle for a company grant (Why and When).” This note provides the basic context for what’s currently going on with the donor and what the next step will be, all without taking too much time. Click here for a meeting notes template and meeting notes checklist.

Constituent entry, gift entry, and meeting notes may not be your organization’s only priority areas, but they are ones that you can focus on and make work for your needs in the here and now. Utilizing the big W’s within these priority areas is what you should consider when evaluating basic needs for useful record collection.

I look forward to when we can have a little more normalcy and a lot more funding for staffing and software, but until then we need to make sure we’re not making things harder for ourselves by struggling through unrealistic data collection and management.

Article by: Amber Jacott, Senior Data Consultant, Mollard Consulting, and Accounting Specialist, YWCA Columbus

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