Cleaning Up Your Data

Posted on 01/01/2024

A recent AGN poll indicated that over 40 percent of educational advancement professionals don’t have confidence that their data can adequately support their institution’s annual giving efforts. Given the critical importance of alumni and donor data when it comes to fundraising, this statistic is disappointing to say the least. But it is perhaps not surprising.

There are a few key reasons why good data can be elusive:

  • Data is constantly changing. Alumni, and particularly graduates of the last decade, are always on the move. Older alumni may have seasonal addresses. It can be difficult to keep track of where individual alumni are at any one moment and how best to reach them.
  • The data set is expanding. In the early days of annual giving, it was sufficient to have an accurate mailing address and a home and work phone number. Today, people have multiple email addresses and phone numbers—not to mention social media handles. Incomplete data can contribute to a perception that it is inaccurate.
  • Staff responsible for annual giving and database administration are often siloed. As a result, there is not a shared understanding across teams of where to store specific data points or how to request the data needed for a particular fundraising appeal.

Collecting and maintaining good data should be a constant priority, year-round. Yet, if your resolutions for the new year include some concerted efforts to clean up your data, here is a top ten list of suggestions to guide you:

  1. Analyze where your data is incomplete. Run counts to know what percentage of records are missing email addresses or cell phone numbers, for example. Then develop campaigns to fill in those specific gaps.
  2. Schedule regular data audits at certain times of the year to help keep data integrity front of mind.
  3. Create a work group with other teams who help maintain your data. Share challenges and brainstorm solutions on how to best leverage data to meet your fundraising goals.
  4. Monitor your processes. Are deceased people excluded when a list request is fulfilled? Are constituent records checked and updated when a reply device is returned with a gift?
  5. Embed annual giving staff with the database team for a few days to learn how they understand and work with data.
  6. Pre-populate alumni data on mailings and ask for updates. Your alumni may assume you have their info right and will ignore a blank form, but pre-populating with the data you have on file will prompt them to correct it. This can be a good opportunity to verify details such as preferred salutation, spouse name, graduate degree, etc.
  7. Document your procedures for data entry. Don’t assume that a one-time training on the database for a new annual giving staff member will suffice. Offer periodic trainings for all staff—or restrict who is authorized to make updates to alumni records.
  8. Leverage events to gather more data. Provide a contact card to every attendee and ask them to provide updated information. To motivate alumni to return cards during the event, conduct a drawing and offer a prize to a lucky winner.
  9. Pay a vendor to update all of your data or conduct an email append for alumni records missing email addresses, for example.
  10. Ensure that updated mailing addresses from NCOA validations are inputted after every mailing.

Good data is essential to effective fundraising appeals. It is the foundation upon which successful annual giving programs are built. And while a deliberate, sustained focus on data integrity is the best approach, even a little data clean-up a few times a year can go a long way.

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