Revised with new information as of June 19, 2012

Tips for Customer/Client Database Maintenance
(including those managing donors &/or volunteers)

Just as for-profit businesses track information about customers, mission-based organizations (nonprofits, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, public sector organizations, civil society organizations, etc.) must track information about people too: volunteers, clients, potential supporters, current donors, potential donors, students, ticket-buyers, event attendees, etc.

The following database-related advice is especially designed for the unique needs of small mission-based organizations. Staff at these organizations have to stretch existing resources a long way, and may not have the resources to hire a full-time database manager or even a short-term consultant, let alone purchase specialized database software or send employees to computer training.

Not everything in the following tip sheet will be appropriate for your database; field names vary, as does the information you want to track about customers and clients. Accompanying each "what to do" part is a "why" part that I hope will help you tailor these suggestions to your database.

This advice comes from the many years I've spent creating and/or managing databases that track people and their activities, be it what tickets they buy, how much they've contributed to an organization in time or money, or if they've received the latest brochure. This advice is further enhanced by continued suggestions from nonprofit mailing list and newsgroup participants.

Inputting names into a customer database is not enough to keep database information up-to-date; database managers should also set a regular maintenance schedule, to make sure addresses are accurate, there are no duplicate records on the database, etc.

These suggestions for regular duties to keep a customer database "clean" are certainly not everything that needs to be done; just basic guidelines to get you started -- and, I hope, get you thinking about other things you can do. Note that field names vary from database to database; also, be sure to check out the companion tip sheet to this one, Customer Database Principles.

Before You Begin

Who do you track on your database? Is it your clients? Potential customers? Program participants? Donors? Board Members? Volunteers? Students?

And what is your target area? Is it people in your city? Your county? A multi-county area? The entire state? People working in a particular profession?

Before you start making changes to a database structure or the way information is obtained, make sure you can answer the above questions -- and make sure that other core staff members agree with your answers! Aside from the fact that you don't want to waste time tracking information that no one will use and that will take up valuable space on your computer, database managers should remember that the information they track serves different staff members with different needs.

This tip sheets identifies the following fields as the "core fields". You will probably have a lot of information about an individual record on your database (a theatre, for instance, would have ticket sales information and donation information about each person on the database). But the core fields are the ones that you need to generate mailing lists or "to call" lists:

Once a month jobs:

Once a quarter jobs:

Other Duties

So many of these tasks are terrific for volunteers; there are many people who want to help with office work.
Plan Ahead
Perhaps your agency publishes a special report annually, and in the future, someone could want to know who received the report. Or, perhaps someone would like to start keeping track of how people are referred to your organization. Database managers should keep their ears open and thinking caps on for new information to track about customers, to meet the needs of the staff or the board.

Removing Someone from the Database
In most cases, you should never remove someone from your database, even if that person requests it, unless it's a duplicate record; instead, create a category that notes people who do not want to be contacted. Why? What if that person is removed, and later, a board member asks if that person, who is a friend, is on the database. You say no, and you put the person back on -- and get an angry call later from that person asking why you contacted him/her when he/she specifically asked you not to.

Another example -- a key supporter leaves the company where you were sending his or her information, and the company won't give you forwarding information. You remove the person from the database, instead of flagging them not to receive mail until the correct address is found. A board member then could ask if that person is on the database, and you would say no, and the board member would wonder what kind of database manager you are anyway, not having such an important person on the database. If you flag the person instead, your answer would be "Yes, but that person recently left Acme Systems and hasn't received information from us since last month. I don't have a forwarding address. Do you have information?"

However, you should regularly remove duplicate records from your database, as well as people who have moved outside of your targeted area, are deceased, or have had a bad address in your system for a year or more.

The newsgroup/Nonprofit email community's FAQs (frequently asked questions and their answers) has more information about Purging Mailing Lists

These tip sheets may also help you:


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