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Donor Databases 101 - A Petrus Development Show Episode on Donor Databases

Donor Databases 101

While we start this episode with a joke, donor databases are a very serious matter.  As you'll learn in this Q+A with Petrus president, Andrew Robison, choosing the right donor database can make a world of difference in your fundraising capabilities.  

(A laugh for your day:  Q:  Where do dads store dad jokes?  A:  In a dada-base!)

Listen to "136 - Donor Databases 101 (Fundraising Databases, Reports, Changing Databases): Andrew Robison" on Spreaker.

Show Notes: 

Andrew and Rhen kick off their discussion on donor databases with an explanation of why organizations need to invest in a fundraising database instead of relying on spreadsheets of donor info.  From there, they share tips about what to look for when purchasing donor databases.  Specifically, Andrew answers the following questions: 

  • What types of reports do you want your fundraising database to be able to give you?
  • What other things should look for when searching for a new database?
  • When setting up your database, what specialty fields might you want to add?  Is there any data we shouldn't include in the database?
  • How much time does your organization need to allocate for database maintenance?
  • What's the process for moving from one database to another?  


Listen to this episode and learn the answers to these questions and more!  As mentioned at the end of the episode, Petrus has a worksheet outlining considerations for choosing a new donor database, and you can sign up to receive it by clicking here.  


Finally, we welcome your fundraising questions for potential use in future shows.  Are there questions you'd like to hear Andrew answer?  If so, email us at [email protected] with your question, and it just might appear in a future Petrus Development Show episode. 




Hello everybody and welcome to the Petrus Development Show. I am Rhen Hoehn from Petrus, joined today by Mr. Andrew Robinson, President and Owner of Petrus. How's it going today, Andrew?

Hey, Rhen. It's going all right. I am enjoying it. We've got a cold front about to come through here in Texas, which means we're going to have temperatures in the low 40s, maybe even the 30s somewhere around there. So yeah, it's been a pretty...

Oh no, no.

Ah, pretty amazing time during Christmas and New Year's. We had a lot of really sunny days, perfect weather. Spent a lot of time out at the playground with the kids, thankfully. Having them home from school for a couple of weeks, we got to have things to do, so I'm enjoying that.

I've been here in the forests of upper Michigan, skiing and snowshoeing with the kids and enjoying the snow, but you probably haven't been doing that, have you?

Not in Texas, but actually, when this episode airs, I will be in Wyoming. I'm going... Yeah, I'm going to Wyoming for a little bit with one of my daughters. We're going to stay on a ranch. Actually, it's going to be pretty awesome. We'll be there.


Ah, with the horses, the cows. I think there's maybe some chickens. But I am excited and a little nervous because I lived in Colorado for a time, as you or listeners remember, and it was cold. But I don't know if I've experienced the cold of Wyoming yet because the temperatures are going to be, you know, single digits below zero, and I read somewhere that Wyoming is the windiest state in the country. So, I think it's going to be a bit of a wake-up call for both me and my daughter.

Yeah, when you mix that wind with the cold, that's where it gets you. I grew up kind of in the plains in Southern Minnesota, and that's pretty tough to withstand, especially coming from a warm climate. So that'll be fun for you guys. Lots of layers.

Any advice you would offer? Layers? Okay, okay, and go outside in short stints, is that right? Okay, all right, good. Well, the...

Layers. Hot chocolate makes all the cold weather go away for the kids. You'll get used to it the more you're out there. It'll be fine.

The place that we're staying, like I said, it's on a ranch. We're actually in a farm or in a barn. They built like an apartment in part of the barn. So some of the reviews that I have read said that if you don't like the sound of wind at night, this is not the place for you. So I'm sure the barn aspect, the windiness, the plains of Wyoming, it's going to be an interesting experience. But I'm really looking forward to it.

This sounds right up my alley. Maybe this should be a future Petrus team retreat, us trying to line up here. Well, with that, let's talk some fundraising, hey.

Yeah, I'm sure the rest of the team would love it. Where are we going, Andrew? The plains of Wyoming. Yeah.

All right. So today, we want to talk about databases, fundraising databases. It's a necessity. Not always a super exciting topic when it comes to fundraising, but as we get started here, maybe we should talk about why an organization, a nonprofit, should invest in a fundraising database. They can be expensive. Can't you just store all the data in a spreadsheet and get away with that?

Okay, I will tell you that. But first, I heard a joke the other day that fits perfectly within the segment. Can I tell it real quick? Where do dads store all their dad jokes? In a database. Yeah.

Well, let's hear it. Okay. Where would that be? Ouch. Ouch.

Pretty terrible. Ah, okay. So why should organizations use a database versus a spreadsheet? Is that your question?

That's usually the first question we get. Why would I spend money on this when I've already got my data in Excel?

Yeah, so I'd say there's a couple of reasons. One, keeping all of your names, addresses, phone numbers, contact information in a spreadsheet is a very risky proposition. Have you ever been working on a spreadsheet or a Google sheet, and then you do a sort? And then all of a sudden, you look at your list and think, wait, none of this matches up anymore. What the heck did I just do? And then you furiously undo, undo, undo until you get it back to where it was previously stated.

Well, let me one-up you there. I had a project where we were collecting a lot of data from constituents in the past, and there were multiples on the team that had access to this spreadsheet. Somebody did a sort that jumbled it and didn't realize it, and about three or four months later, after we've been using the data.

But what?

We realized that the names, addresses, phone numbers, and emails didn't match up, and it was just a terrible mess. Yeah.

Man. Yeah, yeah, so that's just reason number one. It's a very risky situation because of things like that, a sort, a delete. Um, some kind of weird filter gets put on it, and you don't know that you're working off of that. So ah, spreadsheets are great; I love them. Ah, but in situations where you are trying to store all of your data for long-term use, a spreadsheet is just a risky move. The other reason for looking at a database is. So I've worked with a lot of CRMs, and for those of you who don't know, CRM is a customer relationship manager, right? Did I get that right? Yeah, constituent relationship manager, something like that. But a CRM is just another word for a database that you can add information in; you can track activities.

Something like that. Yep.

With your individuals listed, and then you can log new events, new information. Um, like gifts, like visits, like mailings that go out. So ah, using a CRM is just a lot more powerful than using a database. So what I mean by that is if. Um, I have John and Stephanie Donor in my database as a couple, and then I go see John and Stephanie, and um, in the database, most of them that you're going to be looking at, you have a notes field or an actions field where I can say I met John and Stephanie today; we had coffee. Stephanie said that her daughter is about to graduate high school; I'm really excited about that. And I also learned that John is an avid fisherman, so you can kind of track information like that. And then the next time you go, whether it's you or whether it's somebody else on your team, whether it's your predecessor, they can look, and they can say, oh, John and Stephanie, let me look at their notes, their actions. Oh, Andrew went and visited them. Oh, John is an avid fisherman. I'm an avid fisherman; let's talk about that. So you kind of just have options that are built into the database that you don't have in a spreadsheet. Um, you can also log gifts that people make; um, if they make a pledge, you can track the pledges, and they can remind you or they can send out reminders. So there's just a lot more capabilities of a database that spreadsheets just don't have.

Right? And then that gives you the opportunity to pull out that information and tweak. Is that okay? I want to look at all of my donors who are maybe alumni of this campus ministry from the 60s and 70s, right? And generate a report just of those.

Um, yeah.

Those numbers and the contact information of the people who fit that description, right? So generating reports like that is one of the key features of a database, and I want to come back to what other things you should look for in a database, and I think one of those things that you want to look for is that reporting capability. But let's talk about those reports.


What you want a database to be able to run. What are the types of reports you should be looking for a fundraising database to be able to give you?

Yeah, so um, I have worked, like I said, with a lot of databases, some that cost thousands of dollars, some that cost a couple of hundred dollars, and they all, depending on the costs and the functionality, it all kind of comes down to how powerful is the search engine within the database for the most part. Um, but some of them are wildly powerful, but you don't need that kind of power. Some do just the basics, so they're budget-friendly, but you want a little bit more powerful power. So um, I have a list of 5 reports that I think when you're choosing a database you should know you should be able to run at least these 5 reports, and honestly, if you can run these 5, you can use the database pretty effectively for most uses. So the 5 reports that I recommend either the database being able to run or you learning how to run, right? One would be your top donors, so top donors can then be sliced and diced in a couple of different ways. You can, like you were saying, top donors who also graduated in the 1970s, top donors from this past calendar year, top donors who all gave above this threshold. So you can kind of manipulate it, but top donors is one report, a second report would be recent donors, so not just your kind of who gave at the top but just who gave within this time frame. So this is helpful for being able to send receipts, acknowledgments, being able to.

We talked in an episode the other day about doing a thankathon where you or volunteers call your donors. So a recent donors report would be helpful to pull everybody that gave within this time frame or gave to this appeal or gave to this fund, so that's 2. Number 3 is an address list.

Very helpful. Yep.

Um, every database should be able to help you do your mailings, um, and or your emailings, and being able to pull an address list easily is really helpful. There are some databases that you pull an address list and then you have to spend hours kind of manipulating it and cleaning it up, so being able to do that work on the front end so it spits out the addresses that then you can send to your mailhouse or you can print the labels. That's really helpful, but being able to produce an address list is a third report. Um, the fourth report would be a call list. So what I mean by a call list is I am as a fundraiser, I know I'm doing a trip to Dallas next week, right? or in a month, and so I want to generate a list of everybody that's in our database that I might call to go visit. And I want the report to show their name; I want it to show their address; I want to show their phone number or their email address, and maybe I want to show kind of their cumulative giving in the last twelve months so um, that last piece, you know how specific can get depends on the database but at the very minimum. Should be able to spit out a report that has name, address, phone number, email so that I can call people that I'm going to see or like to go see in Dallas, right? and then the fifth list is probably where it gets the kind of trickiest to be able to pull. Um, and if you.

Makes sense.

Can't do this, I would say this is not when a deal-breaker, but the fifth report that I recommend is called your LYBUNT or your SYBUNT list, and it's kind of a variation of some of these other lists, the top donors or recent donors but a LYBUNT stands for, you know what? LYBUNT for Rhen. Okay.

What is that?

And enlighten me, please.

LYBUNT is spelled L-Y-B-U-N-T, and it stands for last year but unfortunately not this year. So LYBUNT means that this donor, this person gave to your organization last year but unfortunately not this year. So this is really helpful, like when you're kind of going into December, which we know a lot of gifts are made in December, you can pull a LYBUNT list and say, "Alright, who's everybody that gave in 2023 but they haven't made their 2024 gift yet?" And we know that there's an inclination to give a propensity gift. So.


I want to prioritize that as my call list for December. And then SYBUNT is some year, so that's just kind of going back. You can say who gave you know three years ago or who gave you know before this date but hasn't given this year. So those 5 are really helpful for a database standpoint or reporting standpoint: top donors, recent donors, address list, call list, and LYBUNT/SYBUNT list.

Excellent. So reporting is obviously super important; what else should we look for when you start searching databases? There's lots of options out there, and the price points, everything from $50 a month to a couple of thousand dollars a month. What are the differences? What are the factors we should consider when choosing a database?


Sure, so um, part of it is budget, and so one thing that I see a lot of databases do is they will tier their budget based on how many records, you know, you're going to have. So if you have 500 records, maybe you pay $50 a month; if you have 5000 records, the price goes up to $100 a month. Um, so looking at kind of how they do their pricing and how many records you have and how many records you ultimately want to have, right, and so looking at it from a budget standpoint on the number of records is helpful. Um, you also want to look for um, ease of functionality. So. There are, like I said, a lot of databases that are really powerful that are really complicated to use because they're so powerful. And if you don't see yourself really kind of getting to that level of complexity and really the marker for that is, do you ever see yourself hiring a full-time database manager? A lot of these big powerful databases. If you're not working in it every day, running reports, entering information, then you're just never going to get to a level of comfort where you can use the highest kind of level of functionality. So do you see yourself, your organization hiring a database manager at some point, which is when you're looking at kind of the form of a development office, right? You're really looking at director of major gifts, annual fund. Maybe then kind of a grant writer, and then you know, other gift officers, and then probably somewhere four, five, six, eight, nine, ten is going to be a database manager. So, and that's not true for everybody. But do you see yourself.

Getting to that size of an organization where you'd be hiring a database manager then right that factor that in whether you're going to need that level of functionality. Um, and then I think some other things are, you know, can um, can you share the information across multiple users. Um, is it ah is it going to pay, or you have to pay more if you add a, you know, their staff member. Um, can you access it when you're out of the office? Nowadays, I would say most databases are, you know, website-friendly, cloud-friendly, and even mobile-friendly. So, that's less of a concern, but you know, can you access your data when you're on the road? Um, those are I would say probably some of the big things that you want to look for: reports, cost, size of your data list. Um, the functionality, whether you are able to has enough complexity but not too much. And then. Um, the last one is it. Can you access it on the road.

I would I would tack on to a little bit to your ease of use point there. I would say what is their training and knowledge base look like for the database? I worked with one very powerful database that didn't offer any training. No how-tos, you had to pay for any basic training. Just how to use their database. And eventually, we moved to a slightly less powerful database that had lots of training, had a video tutorial for everything you ever wanted to do, did weekly webinars training you how to use it, and we got much more use of all the features of that database even though it wasn't quite as powerful because they taught us how to use it, and we had resources to learn and that was invaluable. Like that's probably 1 of my top factors I'd look for if I was choosing a new database right now. They're always more powerful than you're ever going to use every feature for but the more you can learn those features the better. Excellent. So when when an organization sets up.

That's a really good point. Yeah, absolutely.

Ah, a database a lot of times. It's going to come with some kind of standard fields for each constituent right? name address email phone number but oftentimes, you're able to add in kind of specialty fields. What kind of fields should we be including as we look at recording data about our donors in the future and being able to pull that out based On. Kind of unique fields that we create.

Sure, so one kind of grouping of fields would be attributes. So, you know, if you're a campus ministry, an attribute might be: are they an alum, are they a parent, are they a friend, a community member? It's the same for schools and universities, right? Are they an alum, are they a parent? So, kind of what are their attributes? Another thing that would fall under attributes would be when did they attend your organization, when did they participate? So those will be kind of groupings, and within all of that would be attributes. I would say some other fields, if they don't have it already, which, again, we talked about this earlier, but can you record actions and what types of actions can you do? Can you record mailings, can you record visits, can you record events that they attend, things like that? Other fields, most of them, like I said, are going to be, you know, like, or like you said, pretty standard. You know, address or name, address, salutation is a good field. Do they prefer to be Mr. or Mrs., are they Doctor and Mrs., are they, you know, Lieutenant General? You know, I mean, kind of whatever salutations are really helpful. And then address, multiple phone numbers, multiple email addresses, and can you assign those email addresses, those phone numbers to the individuals within, you know, a couple, let's say, um, can you link the records, meaning, you know, if you have parents, can you link their kids if they enter your database.

Um, those would be some of the fields that I would think would be important that are already included.

Excellent. How about data that we shouldn't include about any of our constituents in the database? How do you decide what shouldn't go in there and what should?

Yeah, so that's, um, kind of more and there it's in the field of kind of the ethical conversation. But it's also in the practical conversation. Ren, I don't know if you remember a couple of years ago there was like, ah, I'm going to throw shade on somebody, goes like Walgreens or CVS. But some lady went and she picked up her prescription, and on the receipt, on the prescription notes, they had accidentally included like the pharmacist notes, and the pharmacist notes about this patient were not very kind or flattering at all. It was like,

Oh no.

This lady is she's, ah, she complains, she's rude, and every time she comes in I try to get the other pharmacist to give it right? So I think of that story oftentimes when I think of like what goes into a database because if you ever

Ah, okay.

Knowingly or unknowingly, you know, you print out a report, you take it to a visit, and then you accidentally leave it. Is it gonna say things that, if the donor saw you wrote about them, are going to be, um, are gonna be problematic or are they gonna be rude, right? So um, you know, that's just kind of a practical but it's also unethical, right? You want to keep kind of information about how you feel about a donor out of the database. Um, the other thing, though, is, and this is where it gets a little bit trickier, um, but, ah, when you get to know donors, when you build relationships, you learn things about them that maybe they're not going to share with other people, right?


Sometimes it's a disease in the or an illness in the family. Sometimes it's, you know, a struggle that their son or daughter is going through. Um, you know, maybe you know, it's information about a spouse or an ex-spouse. Um, so um, there's there's kind of you're going to learn things about the donor that are helpful for you to know in building that relationship, but when they're shared with you in confidence, are you going to want somebody else who logs in the database to be able to go in and read that level of detail about that donor or when you leave is your predecessor going to have access to it, and will they read it? So that's more kind of like common sense, and on the ethics side of it is, would you if they weren't telling you would they be comfortable, you relaying that information to somebody else on the team? And if not, then don't put it in their database as a record, you know, as a note.

That makes a lot of sense, so you mentioned in one of our ah recent episodes of the Petris Dev and Show that no database is ever 100% accurate and probably never 100% up-to-date, right? So it's an ongoing struggle to keep updating and maintaining that database.


Ah, how much time do you think needs to be spent or planned on for database maintenance from week to week, month to month?

20:50.23 AROB: That's a good question. I don't know that I have a specific timeframe, but I would say that the organizations I've worked with or been a part of that apply regular maintenance to the database are always in a better position down the road than the groups that defer or put it off, saying, "We'll do all our updates at one time." There was an organization I worked with, a great organization that was good at raising money, but they were always complaining about their data being out of date, with a lot of return mail. One time when visiting them, I saw a stack – probably 3, 4, or 5 feet tall – of envelopes in the corner. I asked, "What are all those envelopes?" They replied, "Oh, that's all our return mail. I'm just waiting until I have a day or a couple of days I can go and update all those as bad addresses." However, it wasn't happening. If you looked through it, John and Stephanie Donor were probably in that stack four times if they'd continued mailing. So, in terms of time and maintenance, think of it as something you want to do a little bit on a regular basis, as opposed to waiting until it's out of control and then having to do a massive cleanup.

22:23.70 AROB: One other story – my dad. I was walking, I don't remember if it was my house or his house, but we were kind of walking through the front yard, and there was a weed. He stopped, picked it up, and said, "I don't have to pick this one later." I replied, "Yeah, it's just one weed. There's a field of weeds. What are you going to do, Dad?" He said, "Well, every time I walk through the yard, I pick a weed or I pick a couple of weeds, and it makes my job easier whenever I have a day that I could spend." That mentality applies to life and fundraising, especially your database. Do a little bit as you can, keep it up to date, and then you're in a better situation down the road.

23:13.69 AROB: 100%, and two quick tips I would offer based on my experience of keeping a database up to date: some databases now will run all your addresses through the NCOA (National Change of Address) every single night and update all your addresses. When I started fundraising, I would get that stack of return mail, and I would spend four or five hours a week just going through those and updating all the addresses. Now, databases are capable of running through that and automatically updating them every night. Such a huge game-changer timewise. Another one is to hire somebody who can work part-time, five, eight, or ten hours a week.

23:40.67 AROB: Yeah.

24:12.10 aggierobison: One last question here – if you already have a database system and you're looking at moving to a different one for some reason, do you have an idea of what that process looks like? What's involved? Is it long? Is it complicated? What does that all entail?

24:25.80 AROB: So, I've gone through a couple of database conversions, and I've worked with clients that have gone through database conversions. The one tip I would offer – well, a couple of tips – but the top one is don't expect it to go on time. Expect there to be delays. One hundred percent of the database conversions I've ever gone through have always gone longer than they say. There are various reasons for that. The truth of the matter is, if they say, "Hey, we get our database conversions done in a month," three months later, you're still working on it. If you've prepared yourself for going longer, then you're not stressing about it. The second point is – they always go longer. The second point is – what can you do to get ready for it? If you've been doing that kind of regular maintenance, even if you haven't, try to clean it up as much as you can before the conversion. Don't think, "Well, I'm going to convert all my bad data, and then I'll clean it up." That's like saying, "I'm going to move all the furniture that I don't want anymore to the new house, and then we'll throw it away." No, get rid of it before you move and clean up your data so that there's less to transition. You're going to spend a lot of time making decisions and being asked questions that sound pointless and tedious, but there's a reason for them – that's how they map the data to your new fields. Just know it's going to be a painful process.

25:55.95 AROB: That it's going to take longer than you want it to, but in the end, if you stick with it, it will get done, and you're moving to a new database for a reason. Keep that in mind, that it will be worth it in the end.

26:07.44 aggierobison: Exactly, and I would say, in my experience, companies have gotten better at helping you make that move in recent years. It was much more hands-off when I've done it than I expected it to be, which is great. Um, excuse me, ah, the two spots, just as a word of wisdom that tend to cause a lot of problems.

26:10.96 AROB: Yeah.

26:17.49 AROB: It's good.

26:23.29 aggierobison: If you have a dad and a father and son in your system who have the same name, so senior and junior, that causes a lot of problems if you're in a setting like a University Campus Ministry where you might have kind of legacy there. The other one is less common titles like military titles.

26:25.17 AROB: So.

26:38.34 aggierobison: Cause lots of problems just because they don't pop up as much, and I had a lot of issues with those in my experience too. So check, yeah, make a list of those possible issues and check them before and after your switch.

26:39.88 AROB: Um, okay, good. Yeah.

26:50.66 AROB: One final point I'll make is that we've been talking about the data but not really much on the gift side of things. Um, I have had organizations that didn't really know they wanted. Um, all their gifts to come over individually, or they thought you know what's the matter of that. And so when they. You know all the data is converted then they end up with every donor has a single gift for all of their cumulative giving, and you don't want that right? You want to know you know a lot of how you position your strategy around a donor is knowing you know things like frequency of giving and if they're in it. They're giving is increasing, and is it the beginning of the year or the end of the year all of those kind of things and so if you don't know that you want those gifts to come over individually then they can come over in one lump chunk.

27:26.63 aggierobison: Yeah.

27:39.10 AROB: Gift and that's not what you want So just be mindful of that on the gift side of things.

27:41.17 aggierobison: That is a great point. Great well, we're out of time for today. But thanks for joining us Andrew. Good good day download some wisdom from you here.

27:49.81 AROB: Databases are my favorite databases I love it. They're like bridges. I don't want to be the one that does that's working on them all the time, but I'm really grateful that smart people love to build bridges and smart people. Love to build and maintain databases, and I want to support them. And every way that I can. So if you're one of those people, God bless you. I'm really grateful for you and if you're not one then find somebody who loves databases and can keep yours in tip-top shape for a long time.

28:14.43 aggierobison: Here here. Great well, just 1 note before we go, registration is open right now for raise Twenty Fourth catholic fundraising conference put on by Petra's development come join us in San Antonio in June of this year and right on the river walk hotel Contessa.

28:23.30 AROB Okay, the River Walk's gonna be awesome.

28:33.27 aggierobison And we have three days of excellent speakers, providing you with knowledgeable fundraising insights. You'll also have the opportunity to connect with many other Catholic fundraisers, building a network to support you along your fundraising journey.

28:45.27 AROB Yeah, it's going to be awesome. I've been to a lot of conferences, including many Petrus Conferences, and I might be a little biased, but I've had other people tell me, unsolicited, that Petrus, the Petrus conference "Raise," is one of, if not their favorite conference every year. We really focus on wanting you to learn a lot and have applicable lessons that you can take back and immediately start raising more money. Additionally, we aim to make it a fun and engaging experience for everyone involved. We put a lot of time, energy, and emphasis into making it enjoyable, and I think that's reflected in the people who keep coming back year after year.

29:30.10 aggierobison Love it! I can't wait. If you, dear listener, have a question you'd like to ask Andrew or potentially have featured on the podcast, you can send it to [email protected], and we may feature it on a future episode.

29:42.19 AROB Fantastic.

29:45.34 aggierobison With that, we'll call it a day. Thank you, Andrew, and we'll talk to you again in a couple of weeks. Enjoy Wyoming.

29:47.41 AROB Thanks, Rhen. It's been a pleasure. Thanks.


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