Spring is upon us and many organizations are starting to look back at the past year’s performance. How was your 2018? How did it differ from 2017?

Now how did it compare to 2008?

Did I throw you for a loop there? 2008 seems like ages ago. You may have been working for another organization, possibly in a different department. You may not even have been a fundraiser at all!

But keeping track of your organization’s historical performance is paramount to achieving strong results. That is why one of my favourite and most-trusted strategic guides is a donor database audit. Looking at the results of the organization’s history over ten years provides an objective viewpoint for us to observe and assesses the past performance of our fundraising efforts.

There are several reasons why the donor database audit is one of my go-to resources when assessing a program’s performance and developing recommendations. Below are three of the most important outcomes it can help you achieve:


See the forest, not the tree.

In running our various programs and appeals, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. We can get so wrapped up in our program’s activities that it can be tough to keep all the moving parts of our organization in mind.

We live and breathe our programs every day – getting to know our donors, how they tick, and how we can best motivate them to give. But if we successfully improve one facet of our department, how does that affect the rest of the organization? What might the eventual impact be on our organization’s net revenues?

By assessing the full program over a period of years, we are able to see some of the interactions that exist (e.g. direct mail acquisition and your monthly donor file). Even more importantly, stepping back and taking a 30,000-foot view of the full program makes our opportunities for improvement much more readily apparent.

The trends seen in a database audit reveal where your program is succeeding and where your unique opportunities for improvement may lie.


Prioritize your tests.

With the organizational forest now fully visible, it is now possible to identify your program’s greatest opportunities to improve. It’s time to get into the weeds and get tactical. Where will you try and move the needle to improve the program?

Your data audit will have revealed a number of areas for improvement. In fact, there will probably be more opportunities than you can realistically pursue! The question then becomes how to whittle this list of opportunities down to a more manageable size.

Before running any sort of test, it is vital that the test is set up in a way that supports your long term fundraising goals. Every single test, regardless of scope or size, involves two of our most valuable resources: time and effort.

The opportunity cost incurred by running a test that will not support your long term fundraising goals is real. Not only might it be of minimal help to achieving these larger goals, but it may also whittle away your desire to run additional tests that could support achieving these goals. The data audit objectively points out where you should spend your effort and, on the flip side, what aspects of your program you can deprioritize.


Strengthen your organization’s knowledge retention.

The third most important outcome a donor database audit achieves is more subtle. It won’t immediately boost your program’s revenues or make the front pages. Instead, it will strengthen the very core of your department.

These types of reports have an advantage over every wonderful idea, initiative, or campaign we put together. That advantage? They’re permanent. And that permanence is key to developing an organization’s knowledge base and its knowledge retention.

In a sector where the staff turnover rate is a real challenge, this organizational knowledge is vital. An organization with a healthy institutional memory will navigate the challenges caused by turnover more easily than others.

A database donor audit is one way to boost your organization’s knowledge and memory. A snapshot in time, it shows where the organization is today and how it got there. And it provides a road sign for new staff members to follow as they join the organization.

A donor database audit won’t singlehandedly steer your fundraising program. However, it will capture the full spectrum of fundraising activities, identify the best opportunities for improvement, and strengthen your organization’s institutional memory. The information will change over time, so if you do have an audit completed, be sure to follow up in a couple of years and see how your trends have changed!

This post was written by Ronen Tal, former Philanthropic Counsel at Good Works.