Ask Maureen: Cleaning Up a Messy Fundraising Database

Nonprofit digital strategist and technology coach Maureen Wallbeoff gives advice to social good professionals in this new sgENGAGE series. Have a question you’d like Maureen’s help with? Leave a comment and you could be featured in an upcoming post!

Dear Maureen,

My organization’s fundraising database is a hot mess! We’ve had some turnover on our development team, and it seems like every person has used the system differently. There are no rules, and that means our database is almost useless. I’m trying to figure out how to share the extent of the problem with my boss, but I have no idea what will help us solve this nightmare. We don’t have any real data experts on our team. This is keeping me up at night. What would you advise us to do?

Sleepless in San Francisco

Dear SiS,

Does it make you feel any better to know you aren’t alone? Many nonprofits are either dealing with a hot data mess, trying to prevent a hot data mess, or pretending they don’t have a hot data mess.

The first step to getting things tidied up is to talk about what’s going on to cause the mess. I know you probably feel like you can’t live with it for one more day, but trust me, you want to make strategic moves. All too often, I see folks rush in and merge those duplicates – only to realize six months later that their business processes are creating a lot of the mess.

Here’s what I’d recommend:

  1. I’d like you to schedule a meeting with everyone who uses the database and facilitate a few fact-finding sessions. These aren’t about placing blame! The goal for these sessions is to help you get a clear picture of how your team is using the system now. Set up some screen shares and ask your team to show you what they do and how they do it. Ask them how (or if) there were trained. These meetings will identify where there’s consistency across the team – and where it’s missing.
  2. Now, let’s deal with that data. Someone is going to need to make a data clean-up plan. Because you don’t have data experts or business analysts on your team, it probably makes sense to hire someone to do an audit of your data, create a plan for clean-up, and execute the plan. Many data shops that work with nonprofits have magical tools that can run through your system and make corrections or merge duplicates. You can ask your database company if they have anyone they’d recommend (or if they can do this for you). The cost is typically dependent on the extent of the problem and the number of records in your database.

    Download 5 Quick Projects to Jump Start Your Database Cleanup

  3. Remember those screenshares you did in step one? It’s time to get your team on the same page about how  the database should be used. Things like naming conventions, field use, and gift entry should be done the same way by everyone. You might want to plan on some re-training to be sure the team is supported in these business process changes.

Your database didn’t get this way overnight – and while it seems like a big job to clean things up, it’s really the only path forward. Talk with your boss, share these three steps, and begin. I know you can turn things around!


Get more tips for creating a data health action plan so you can increase ROI, save money, acquire new donors in Blackbaud’s free on-demand webinar, “Data Health 101: The Mission to Maintain a Healthy Database.”