Nonprofits are very good at doing a lot with a little. Smart executive directors know when spending more will pay off big. When it comes to fundraising, spreadsheets are familiar and free, but they limit your potential to engage with donors and bring in steady funding.
The biggest limitation is the difficulty of tracking relationships. For example, if you want to be able to track each gift as a record, it’s going to be hard to associate each gift with its respective donor.
Here are five reasons why keeping your donor records in “flat file” spreadsheets is a risky move.
- A sprawl of columns. It won’t take long for your spreadsheet to get very big and require a lot of side scrolling. For example, if a donor has multiple email addresses and phone numbers, you need a column for each one, even if other donors don’t have so many forms of contact.
- It’s difficult to track relationships. It’s useful to know whether a donor has a spouse or children who also donate. And “soft credits” such as corporate matching is valuable to track. You can create additional columns for this information, but you’re making your spreadsheet that much bigger and having to duplicate some information, which puts you at risk of missing data that someone forgot to enter in all of the relevant places.
- Greater vigilance is needed. No matter what kind of database you’re using, someone needs to be keeping it up — getting data entered in a timely manner, checking the accuracy of records, making sure records are complete. Most donor management systems allow you to set rules for data entry, can send you reminders for when data needs to be entered or reconciled, and can create exception reports that show you the weaknesses in your data.
- Spreadsheets won’t help you engage with donors. Most donor management systems can send you reminders about which donors to follow up with and automate thank you messages. You can also create reports that make it easy to see donor habits. Essentially, donor management software makes it easier to know what your donors need and how to reach out to them.
- Spreadsheets are less secure. A document is easy to save over with the wrong version or accidentally delete. And if a user needs any part of the document, they have access to the whole thing, which can risk exposing sensitive data to the wrong people. And for any user, one wrong keystroke can wipe out thousands of records. Backups help, but good donor management software has built-in user controls and security features that allow you to limit access and protect user data.