Direct Mail Expert Says Too Many Nonprofits Neglect This Vital Asset: Are You One of Them?

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Your nonprofit’s database is one of the most critical assets you own — or at least it should be. That’s because it should house the kind of precious information that makes your donor outreach efforts successful.

Cody Heeney understands the importance of databases as well as anyone. He’s been at the helm of Database Marketing Innovators for decades, assisting thousands of nonprofits with their direct mail efforts.

Heeney has tremendous respect for the work nonprofits do and is even directly involved with a few himself. Yet in his experience, he’s observed a fundamental problem: “Too many nonprofits don’t know how to manage their database.”

My company has been servicing the mailing needs of nonprofits for nearly 30 years, and Heeney has been our go-to direct mail expert for many of those years.

In the following, I’ll use his help to explore your database challenges, describe what’s at stake with a poor-quality database, and then offer practical ways to improve your database management.

Your Mailing List Is Not Your Database

Heeney says a barrier to good database management starts at the conceptual level. “I think a lot of nonprofits see their mailing list and their database as essentially the same thing. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth stating that a mailing list is just names and addresses,” says Heeney.

A well-maintained database, on the other hand, is what can produce a highly effective mailing list. That’s why Heeney says your nonprofit database should include fields for crucial details like:

  • Current, verified contact information.
  • An up-to-date history on how often you’ve contacted the person or organization.
  • How you’ve contacted them.
  • What they have responded to.
  • Why they responded.
  • The last time they donated.
  • An up-to-date history on the amounts they’ve donated.
  • The last event they attended.
  • Any demographic information that can help you tailor your messaging.

“I have customers who maintain databases with two hundred fields in them,” says Heeney. That’s not necessary for everyone, but he does say, “It’s surprising how many nonprofits are missing the very basics.”

Why Nonprofits Have an Especially Hard Time Maintaining Their Database

Unfortunately, the quality of a database often depends on how long one person has been in charge of it. And that can be especially problematic for nonprofits, says Heeney.

“The simple fact is that nonprofits have higher turnover. And when someone new comes along to work on the database, they may not know how old the data is, when a contact’s last donation was, and on and on.”

And a lot of valuable information might not even make it into the database because it’s sitting in a person’s head, says Heeney. And when that person leaves, so does the data.

Changes in staff can also mean changes in printers or direct mail vendors. “Now those new partners are looking at a list, and they don’t really know what they’re getting.”

What’s At Stake Without a Well-Maintained Database

Want to motivate your nonprofit to amp up it’s database efforts? Consider how a poorly managed database can affect your outreach efforts — and your overall mission:

You waste money, a lot of it. Heeney says he’s constantly encouraging his customers to keep their donor info up to date. “Otherwise, over the course of, say, five or 10 years, you could easily be wasting 20% to 30% of your mailing and print budget.”

That’s what happens when you’re sending material to people who have moved, lost interest in your nonprofit years ago or are possibly deceased.

You may never know just how bad your mailing list is. Nonprofits typically send bulk rate mail for its obvious lower costs. But what happens when it’s undeliverable?

If you don’t make a special request to have the piece returned or forwarded, Heeney says that it will simply get “trashed” or, more accurately, recycled. “The Post Office is one of the largest recyclers of paper for that very reason.”

Perhaps more important, he points out that you’ll never get a notification about it. “I don’t think a lot of nonprofits, or even bulk mailers, realize that.”

You hurt your ability to segment and distribute more strategically. I have nonprofit customers who base a lot of their mailings on past donations. For example, they might send the annual report to the biggest donors, while others get a postcard directing them to the online version. (A smart money-saving tactic for nonprofits, by the way!)

But effectively strategizing who gets what and honing the messaging for segmented audiences requires a database that’s up to date and chocked full of valuable donor info.

You can’t personalize with inaccurate information. Nearly a hundred years ago, self-improvement pioneer Dale Carnegie wrote: “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” As the author of bestselling books like “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Carnegie understood the power of knowing someone’s name.

With today’s variable-data printing technology, that power is easier than ever to tap into. You can personalize the contents of letters, postcards and other collateral, and even include PURLS (personalized URLs), which direct recipients to their very own landing page.

And names are just the beginning. You can also remind a recipient of their last gift, graciously thank them for it and include options encouraging them to give a little more this time around.

Unfortunately, if your database is riddled with misspelled or incorrect names and information holes, all that potential for personalization goes down the drain.

Tips to Build a Strong, Reliable Database Moving Forward

Now that you have a sense of what you’re missing with a poorly managed database, let’s look at what you can do to improve the situation.

Make database management an absolute staff priority. Heeney says even if you have staff and volunteers that come and go way more than you’d like, you can still maintain a robust database.

“Build in protocols that ensure database management gets done and that the duties can be easily transferred should someone leave. Make it your nonprofit’s priority — not an afterthought.”

Take a slow-but-steady approach. Updating thousands of entries can be overwhelming, but Heeney says doing it incrementally can be a great strategy.

“Let’s say you set a goal to update 10 addresses a day, for instance. Within a year, you’ve done well over 2,000 addresses without a lot of effort.”

Have a trusted third-party analyze your database to identify potential issues. For example, a qualified printer or mailing house can run your file through the National Change of Address program database.

Heeney says, “It’s an inexpensive way to do a database check going back 48 months and can provide helpful indicators as to how old your data is.”

Additional ways to go a step further. There are other options that likely involve more expense, says Heeney, but could be worth it depending on the state of your database:

  • Request an NCOA database check that goes back six years.
  • Rather than use bulk rate, send materials first class. “Then you’d actually get the piece back or at least get a notification from the Post Office indicating that the address is invalid,” says Heeney.
  • Do an email push that directs people to a webpage where they can add, update and verify their information.
  • Purchase additional data to supplement or rebuild your current database. “For example, you could purchase data on contacts you don’t have in a certain region.”
  • If your budget allows, consider software programs like DonorBase and Raiser’s Edge, which are built for fundraising.

Your Mission Is Why You Exist, Your Database Makes It Possible

A database may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your nonprofit’s accomplishments and the important work that’s still to come.

But you need donors to make it all possible. Keeping accurate records on who they are, where they’re at, what they give and even what’s important to them is likely more valuable than many realize.

Take the time to consider your database practices. If you’re not giving this vital resource the attention it deserves, then it’s time to reprioritize your tasks. The good news is that you have plenty of options to help make your database better.

A great place to start is by picking your printer’s brain. Many provide a range of nonprofit mailing services themselves and also have partnerships with excellent direct mail vendors that can help revitalize your database. Why put it off? The small steps you take now can make a huge difference for your future success.

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