Are you inadvertently writing off donors or missing crucial opportunities to contact them because of simple coding errors? Tertia Sanderson and Fiona Paterson highlight some common pitfalls in donor data management and suggest some simple solutions.

Are you inadvertently writing off donors or missing crucial opportunities to contact them because of simple coding errors? Tertia Sanderson and Fiona Paterson highlight some common pitfalls in donor data management and suggest some simple solutions.

Love it or hate it, donor data is the fuel that keeps your charity running. Raw data can be mined and transformed to provide insights and make any supporter communication compelling and personally relevant. But many charities stumble into common data pitfalls that make targeting the best people harder.

Pitfall #1: throwing away donors

It’s unlikely you have too many active donors, and yet it’s possible you have ‘thrown away’ a proportion of donors who may have been active if you had better understood and managed your donor data.

RTS (Return to Sender) donors are often flagged in a database as ‘Inactive’ or ‘Do Not Mail’. They should be marked as RTS. Source their new address and actively pursue them through other channels such as email and phone.
A donor who rings to complain about a communication received should not be marked as “never speak to me again”. If they have taken the time to ring up they are showing they care about your charity. Use the opportunity to get feedback from the donor – find out what has upset them and what action they would like to be taken. Address this through appropriate coding such as: they are to receive only limited communications and appeals without direct asks; they are not to be contacted by telephone; or they are to be contacted through email only. Don’t just cease communication.
The regular giver whose gift doesn’t go through is often ‘thrown away’. Not many charities have a formal process for following up dishonoured gifts and re-engaging the donor. These donors have not actively cancelled and are your best regular giving prospects; make an effort to recover them.
A large number of discarded donors are those who are automatically flagged as ‘inactive’ or archived because they meet certain criteria, such as ‘has not made a transaction in 24 months’. These may not be your hottest cash appeal targets, but any donor who has a transaction needs to remain in your contactable pool because they are more valuable than a cold prospect. Ask yourself:

How do we mark a donor whose mail is returned and do we try to recover them?
What do we do when a regular gift is dishonoured?
Are we too quick to mark our donors as non-contactable?

Pitfall #2: limiting basic contact data collection

Don’t assume that one contact channel is enough. Australia post says at least 17% of people move house every year. By limiting your data to a street address, one in six of your records becomes invalid every 12 months.

Broaden your communication channels to more than just direct mail. Ask for and capture mobile numbers and email addresses. Analysis shows a donor who has provided an email address and a mobile phone number is less likely to stop giving and more likely to be responsive to streams of communication other than direct mail.

Ask donors to check and update their contact details at every opportunity – when you mail them, when they call to make a donation. Engaged, committed donors will do it; they want to hear from you in the future.
Information such as source of gift and date of birth is incredibly valuable, but is seldom actively sought or captured. Date of birth can be used as a form of verification, to assist acquisition profiling and as a life stage indicator useful for prospecting bequests.
Knowing what inspired a donor to first give to your cause provides valuable insight and an opportunity to understand the longer-term value of your acquisition activities. Ask yourself:

Do we actively seek and revalidate contact information from our donors?
Do we use this to inform our understanding of the donor and communications with them?
Do we use the National Change of Address service at least once a year (at least for active donors and return to senders)?


One of the most common problems that crops up is the misuse of codes and flags in databases. Codes or flags are often developed as a reaction to something and the context in which this new coding is placed is not considered. How it affects current process, entry protocols and how the code will be used alongside other data can be easily overlooked.

You want your donors IN for as many communication opportunities as possible. A ‘Do Not Contact’ flag might be a quick fix, but consider if this can be filtered by channel or timing so that it’s not ‘Do Not Contact’ ever.
Ensure your codes don’t contradict each other. For example, a donor should not be marked ’email only’ in one section and ‘mail four times a year’ in another.
Fundraisers fundraise and database managers usually don’t. Help your database manager (and supporter services team) understand what you need and why. Ask yourself:

Do we have a clear data management strategy?
Does our database manager understand the core functionality of the database and what fundraisers are trying to achieve?

Tertia Sanderson is a data analyst and Fiona Paterson is the fundraising strategy director at Pareto Fundraising