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From the Fundraiser's Playbook - Donor Database

If you're doing any kind of fundraising more complicated than a bake sale (which is not really a fundraiser), you need a donor database. A donor database is every fundraising team's most essential tool. Your donor database is a living record of every person that has given to your ministry, their gifts, and the ways that you have cultivated your relationship.

The most basic donor database is a spreadsheet that tracks the names, addresses, and gift amounts of people who have given to your cause. This might work for starters, but if you're going to need to raise a significant amount of money year after year, you're going to need a tool that is designed for the task.

Lots of options.

Donor database software comes in many different flavors. Free donor databases do exist, but I don't recommend using them. The information in your database is valuable and private, and I personally wouldn't trust a software that is given away for free. A quick search online will bring up a listing of donor databases showing the cost and the capabilities of each. Some of the big ones include DonorperfectBlackBaudSalsaCRM, KindfulParishsoft, and Bloomerang. These database platforms have different costs and different levels of technical support.

Many database providers charge based on the number of contacts you're going to be managing. They'll give a lower price to companies with fewer than 1,000 donors, for instance. Price gradation enables you to find a database solution that can work within your current resources and grow with your organization. Know that changing database can be a total nightmare, so plan with the long-term view in mind.

Key capabilities

Donor Profile:

 The primary ability of any donor data base is to store the information on a donor and their giving history. All of them do this. Keeping this information clean is absolutely critical. By clean, I mean true. Your database will be useless if it is filled with dead people, outdated addresses, old phone numbers, and abandoned e-mail addresses. Invest the time and energy needed to make sure that the information in your database is current.

Relationship Tracking: 

The second most important feature is relationship tracking. Different databases do this is in different ways. For the database to be the best possible tool, your development efforts should be structured in such a way that every contact with a donor is recorded. This means every thank you note, every phone call, every event invitation, every committee assignment… all of these should be visible when you pull up a donor record. It's time-consuming and boring to enter donor contacts into the system, but it pays big dividends in the long-term.


The third most important feature is the ability to pull up reports and create lists from those reports. Say you're doing your Christmas fundraising letter. Your database should be able to create a list of names with addresses for donors who gave to direct mail requests in the last two years. The reporting feature is also essential for tracking the success of your fundraising efforts.


Coding is the term that refers to the way you classify donations that come into your ministry. Was a gift in response to a certain mail piece? That should have a specific code attached to it. Was the gift in response to a grant application? That should have a different code attached to it. Having a well thought out coding system enables you to track the different streams of revenue for your budget, as well as to pull reports on each of your fundraising programs to see if they are performing as you expected. Many databases will have the capability to connect directly with your accounting software so you don't have to enter the same information into two different systems. Work with your business department or manager to find a solution that works well for fundraising and accounting.

Setting up your database

When you're first setting up your donor database, you want to know a couple important things. Who is going to have access to the database? Who will have permission to add information or make changes to the records? How will you distinguish between donations that come from businesses or individuals? How often will you clean your data, and how will you do it? What additional information do you want to add to your database and how will you get it?

You will also want to work with your staff to help them see the big picture about tracking donor contacts. The work of entering donor contacts into the database can sometimes seem like busy work, especially when you have a thousand other things to do. In the long run, having comprehensive information on a donor's relationship with your organization will enable you to run a strong and effective major giving program. Some development offices have administrative assistants who do the data entry for the development staff, but this is only cost-effective in relatively large organizations.

Protecting your information

Your donor database contains very valuable information. You need to take prudent steps to ensure that you protect it. Here are several important considerations that you should take into account:

1. Choosing the right database vendor 

Many of the major donor database companies have moved to a 'cloud' model, which means they host your database on their servers and give you access through web portals. The benefit of this approach is that you are not responsible for building and maintaining the servers and the database, which can be a significant cost savings. The downside of this is that your data is in the hands of a third-party. You need to investigate the donor vendors to make sure they have a good reputation for data security, uptime, and confidentiality.

2. Restricting access

Many people at your organization have no business looking in the donor database. Make sure that they don't have access to the database. Most databases also have the ability to grant limited or restricted access to individual users. You might give a person the ability to search for records, but not change the information in the record. The person in charge of your fundraising should know the names of every person that has access to your database and the level of access they have been given.

3. Back-ups

Plan to make a back-up of your database regularly, even if you work with a cloud vendor. Establishing a weekly backup could save your ministry if your vendor gets hacked and their system gets wiped out. Having a regular weekly backup will give you peace of mind that your database will survive a catastrophe.

Need some new ideas on how to fundraise? Check out The Fundraiser’s Playbook and find the fundraising strategy that will work best for you!

Image courtesy of ajmexico, via Creative Commons License, some rights reserved.