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4 tips for keeping your donor database healthy

Posted February 18, 2014 by Chris Bicknell

In the same way our bodies do, keeping a database healthy requires consistent work. This post gives you some practical methods for achieving database health, or what is sometimes referred to as reachability, a focus on answering the questions, “can you contact everyone in your database to ask them to consider a gift, and if so, can you do this through multiple channels?”

What won’t be covered in this post is anything related to deciding and then maintaining a scheme for how to group people within your database, how to manage retention, or prospect screening and research. Those are separate topics for another time.

Tip #1: Turn on SmartyStreets

SmartyStreets is a service that is both awesome and offered free of charge (to nonprofits). When you set up a SmartyStreets account and connect it to your LGL account (see our Knowledge Base article), LGL will work through all the addresses in your account and send them to SmartyStreets to validate them, add Zip+4, and standardize their formatting to USPS standards. And, when you enter new constituents or new addresses, SmartyStreets will help you ensure the addresses are valid for delivery.

While there are many other ways to communicate besides physical mail, it is nonetheless a critical avenue of communication for fundraising. A great tool like SmartyStreets helps you keep this part of your LGL database healthy.

Tip #2: Take advantage of an NCOA screening

NCOA is short for the National Change of Address database. Running your list through this screening process helps you a) find people’s new addresses when they have filed a “change of address” form with the USPS and b) stop mailing to people at addresses that have been marked “return to sender” and added to the NCOA database.

Mail houses that do large mailings such as newsletters or appeals are likely running your list through this process currently. If you are receiving bulk mail rates, the mail house is required to do so. We recommend you check with your mail house to see if they are running NCOA on your list and, if so, ask to get the results. (You’ll need to make sure the list you send them from LGL includes the LGL Constituent ID and the LGL Address ID.)

NCOA is a worthwhile investment. LGL customers who complete this service typically receive updated addresses for between 5 to 10 percent of their constituents.

Tip #3: Take stock of your current LGL data

LGL offers several shortcuts for taking a quick look at the health of your database. In combination with the simple instructions that follow, these can help you prioritize steps toward increasing your database’s health. (Use this Excel spreadsheet to manually input the information the steps will help you find in LGLa great way to see how your entire database is doing. We recommend you save the worksheet to your hard drive with the current date added to the filename so you have a snapshot of the statistics frozen in time. After working in your database for another 6 months or so, you can do this again and compare the results.)

  1. Log in to your LGL account and go to the Constituents tab.
  2. Use the Advanced Search function to find Constituents to whom you “Can send mail”. (This shortcut excludes constituents who are deceased, have no valid address, or whom you have coded “Do not mail”). With this search in place, have a look at the numbers and use them to begin filling out the spreadsheet. Repeat this process, changing the search to “Can call?” and “Can Email?” and filling out the spreadsheet as you go.
  3. While you are gathering statistics, it is worthwhile to review constituents coded as “Deceased” as an additional step.
  4. With the statistics now in place for your information and records, create some searches to help in your cleanup efforts:
  • “Can send mail?” Using the Advanced Search function, leave the “Name” field blank and then add a sub/nested query, choose the “and not” option, and then choose the “Can send mail?” option. You can save this search and use each of the Auto Filter check boxes in sequence to look at the Top 100 (includes Active and Lapsed donors), Active, Lapsed, and Non Donors. You can also use any of your other codes to work on subsets of your data (e.g., an important constituency group such as alumni or active members).
  • Repeat the above process with “Can call?” and “Can send Email?” and use all the coding you have in place to help you tackle your most important people, or a group you are trying to reach out to now, first.

Tip #4: How do you get the missing data?

If your database is missing contact details, here are a few options to consider:

  • Paid services. Companies such as Updentity offer “append” services (they do their best to find addresses, phone numbers, and emails for your constituents), which can be highly valuable in gathering information needed to communicate with your constituents.
  • Staff work. With the most important people, the first place you can look is your own colleagues; it is likely someone in your organization knows where to reach them and how. Ask around. Also, just like any task, dividing the work into manageable pieces can be a big help. For example, working through 15 to 30 per month may not be overly burdensome, and in 3 months you might have tackled the most important people.
  • Volunteer efforts. Gathering volunteers for phone-a-thons takes a lot of work, but if your constituents are likely to be connected in a strong network (often true for schools and sometimes for organizations) you could consider an “information-a-thon,” in which active volunteers gather and work their networks through phone (cell phone), email, Facebook, or any other channel to try to fill out the missing pieces of information.


It’s neither too time-consuming nor costly to take measurable steps toward cleaning up your LGL database and getting a handle on your reachability (e.g., the statistical review should take less than 30 minutes).

In a survey we completed in conjunction with Marts & Lundy, we found that only 32% of the nonprofit respondents had performed any type of data audit on their fundraising database. Even something as simple as an NCOA screening had been completed by only 46% of respondents.

We at LGL are committed to your reachability. So we hope you’ll start improving the health of your LGL database today using the steps shared in this article.

2 thoughts on “4 tips for keeping your donor database healthy

  1. Very good written article. It will be supportive to anyone who utilizes it, including me. Keep doing what you are doing – can’t wait to read more posts.

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