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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Keeping Your Donor File Clean

by Stephen Hitchcock

Among the organizations I’ve worked with over the years, those that raise the most money invest time and attention to maintaining their database. And, if you’re building your donor file through list exchanges, you’ll soon find the door closed if your list gets a reputation for out-of-date addresses. Just as critical: a “dirty list” will prevent you for taking full advantage of postal discounts for automation.

So what can you do to protect and “polish” your organization’s most important fundraising asset?

1) Double-check or proof-read all new records. Getting the name and address right the first time is the single biggest step in maintaining a strong list.

of related interest OF RELATED INTEREST: In Open Immediately!, Stephen Hitchcock offers straight talk on direct mail fundraising. Each of the 81 focused chapters provides down to earth guidance on virtually every facet of raising money by mail.

2) In the data entry process, capture phone numbers and e-mail addresses. This will enable you to contact donors when their mail is returned as undeliverable.

3) Send out thank-yous promptly via first class mail. Then if the post office returns the thank-you, you know there’s a problem with the address and are more likely to still have the source documents around to find out what happened. In your new member thank-you package, you can also include a form allowing the new donor or member to correct his or her name and address. That form can also request a phone number and an e-mail address.

4) Use your newsletter to encourage your readers to let you know when they move. Don’t depend on postal forwarding – you’ll miss critical months of time. Besides, the post office isn’t required to send you forwarding information if you’re mailing at nonprofit standard postage.

5) On your website, create a members’ or donor page that makes it easy for individuals to e-mail new addresses. A toll-free 800 phone number also encourages donors to call with their new addresses.

6) When appropriate, using a reputable telephone fundraising firm to call current and lapsed donors will uncover a significant portion of new addresses. Often individuals will move to a new address but will retain the same phone number, so the telephone call reaches them even if they’re no longer receiving your mail.

7) At least twice a year, have your donor base matched against the National Change of Address database (NCOA). Only vendors licensed by the postal service may provide NCOA, but many lettershops have contracts with the licensed vendors. There is usually is a minimum charge for using NCOA. Often, therefore, an organization’s donor file is run against the NCOA as part of a larger acquisition mailing that goes to outside lists. 

8) Duplicates drive donors crazy, so at least once a year review your database for duplicates. Some donor software programs include a dupe elimination model. More sophisticated lettershops can also provide this service. Yes, it is tedious to the extreme because someone (perhaps even you!) will need to visually inspect “suspected duplicates.” Then a decision must be made about which record to keep and what unduplicated giving information to merge with the other record.  Without this regular inspection, though, your donor base could easily end up with 10 to 15 percent duplicates – especially if your list is growing (which is desirable).

9) Once a year or once every other year, send out a “Donor Confirmation” mailing. This mailing tells the donor everything (or almost everything) you have in their record: name, spouse’s name, address, salutation, titles, date and amount of most recent gift, mailing preferences (once a year), list exchange status (yes or no), and planned giving interest. This will give your supporters a chance to correct the information, and your response form can also ask your donors to provide you with additional information (many when supply their phone numbers and ages if you ask in this context).

10) No matter how hard you work at this, some mail will be returned as undeliverable (what is called a “nixie”). Don’t take this as the final word. The postal sorting equipment can make mistakes and individuals can temporarily stop their mail. First, do everything you can to get the correct address. Get on the phone. Send an e-mail. Check the Internet. Second, send out the returned mailing again to the same address but put it in a new envelope and hand-write the address (manual sortation). Finally, don’t mark the donor’s record undeliverable. Send at least two more mailings and, if those are returned, then mark the record “undeliverable” or “bad address.” It’s not just in baseball that it take three strikes before you’re out.

To be sure, all 10 of these steps require you to set up management systems, plan ahead, and exercise continuing diligence (otherwise known as hard, boring work). But you’ll be saving money and paper because you’ll be mailing to fewer incorrect addresses. And I can assure you that your investment will be rewarded with more contributions and with larger gifts (if only because donors like seeing their names spelled correctly). 

Stephen Hitchcock is the author of Open Immediately, by Emerson & Church, Publishers.

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