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10 Tips To Mastering Nonprofit Database Management

Whether you use an Excel spreadsheet or have recently invested in software, you may encounter some hurdles while managing your nonprofit's database. Have you ever tried looking for that one shirt that you need, but it’s buried in a pile of clothes? Without proper management and organization, your data might become a pile of information without any real use.

On the other hand, an updated and organized database would help your nonprofit immensely. Let’s figure out how to make your database work for you!

Here’s an example: You want to remind members to renew their membership for this year. You need the following information to do this:

  • Members from last year

  • Members who have already registered this fiscal year (to avoid sending unnecessary reminders)

  • Current email addresses

If your database isn’t ready for you to use, you won’t be able to launch an effective communication strategy. You may lose an opportunity to contact your community (such as potential members), and this unfortunately leads to fewer new memberships.  

Here are 10 tips to manage your nonprofit database effectively:

  1. Appoint a Database Manager
  2. Define Goals and Contributors
  3. Set Up Data Entry Procedures 
  4. Train all Contributors
  5. Clean Up Data
  6. Update, Update, Update!
  7. Backup the Data
  8. Secure Your Passwords
  9. Move Beyond Excel
  10. Comply with GDPR

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1. Appoint a Database Manager

The person you appoint should be considered the "point person" for the database. This role is not necessarily technical, but will require some basic knowledge of database management. The job title can be Database Manager, CRM Administrator, or even Membership Manager. 

The responsibilities of this role would include:

  • Data management and ensuring data quality (no duplicates, no data entry errors)

  • Training other staff and/or volunteers 

  • Helping staff/volunteers navigate and use the database

Within a small organization, these responsibilities can be taken by someone who works with the database a lot (e.g., a staff member who works in fundraising).

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2. Define Goals and Contributors

The database manager must collaborate with the team to establish database procedures. Some questions for everyone involved are: 

  • What does your nonprofit staff need from the database? (i.e. contact info, donation history)

  • Who has permission to view, enter and modify the data?

  • Who is responsible for saving backups of the database? How often?

  • How should people with different titles/roles within the organization access and edit the database? (i.e. a board member who is also a volunteer)

There is no right answer, but these questions will help you ensure everyone is on the same page when working with the database procedures. Consistency is the key to successful database management!

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3. Set Up Data Entry Procedures

Your database is like a kitchen pantry, full of ingredients to use. To gather the right ingredients for your organization to "cook" with, you need to figure out what information you wish to record in the database.

Which information is mandatory? What information is optional?

Contact info is probably needed for all the people you are saving in your database. Their birthday might be optional, depending on your nonprofit's plans with the data. However, if sending birthday greetings is important to your organization, it becomes mandatory. 

What type of data is required for the information you’re gathering? 

For example, when you’re entering a phone number, your database system or platform can alert you if you've left out a number. You would need to set up your data entry procedure to avoid mistakes.

What information would you like to search for? 

In order for your search inquiries to work properly, the information stored in your database must be standardized and consistent.

Let’s consider John’s database, which he uses to manage volunteers for a community garden: 

John has data about each volunteer’s time commitment to his nonprofit. If the volunteers have the option to type their own answers into the form, John might end up with different answers such as "1 hour", "one hour" or "1 hr."

If he searches for all volunteers who are available for one hour, he has to navigate these different options. To avoid this, John should set up a "drop-down list" where volunteers must select: "1 hour", "2 hours", "3 hours," etc.

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Where and how to store data that isn’t needed right now? 

Sometimes data isn’t useful now, but you have a bunch of old Excel spreadsheets or a pile of papers that you would like to import into your database for recordkeeping.

Set up rules for how to deal with this, so that you can store the data without affecting the more useful data. Do it soon too, otherwise it’ll become more difficult to add it systematically and consistently.

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4. Train All Contributors 

Everyone using the database must be trained in the rules and procedures you previously defined.

If you have volunteers who are not authorized to update the database, set up a pipeline of update requests to the appropriate trained staff member.

Working with a database requires an eye for detail, so if some staff or volunteers are regularly making mistakes, it might be wise to restrict their access to the database.

It is best to work with good data from the moment of data entry! You don’t want to go back and fix mistakes that could have been avoided.

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5. Clean Up Data

Even if you do your best to ensure consistent data during data entry, there will naturally be times when discrepancies and errors appear. 

A database should be regularly updated to avoid:

  • Mailing or emailing deceased contacts

  • Mailing or emailing invalid addresses 

  • Duplicate data

To clean up your database, you need to identify where the errors are, correct them, and prevent them from recurring in the data entry procedure.

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6. Update, Update, Update!

Your database is your window to donors and members. A clean database lets you view and communicate with your community easily. A dirty database can cause a big mess, which will slow your nonprofit down! 

It’s important to keep updating your database. The database should always update contact information, but maybe your organization would benefit from knowing how many times members receive specific email campaigns before they renew their membership.

We have a pro tip for you: As part of an email or fundraising campaign, ask your members to confirm their contact information that you have on file. This way, you are proactively updating data, rather than reacting to update requests! 


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7. Backup Your Data

Technological hiccups happen all the time. You should make sure your clean and updated database is safe and secure, especially if you accidentally delete a large chunk of data, or you lose access to your database.

Most online database platforms offer backup guarantees, but examine their security, backup and privacy policies to make sure it works for your nonprofit.

If in doubt, you can export your database in an Excel file to keep an "offline" backup.

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8. Secure Your Passwords

Your database contains sensitive information, so you should keep it safe from people with bad intentions

Here are some simple but effective practices to provide maximum security around your database:

  • Do not share your password with other people.

  • Do not use the same password as other platforms.

  • Create an account for each person accessing and editing the database.

  • Change passwords regularly.

  • When someone leaves your organization, deactivate their account and completely block access to your database.

  • If you have the option in your database security settings, enable 2-step authentication. This will add another step of confirming a code sent to your email or phone. 

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9. Move Beyond Excel

Excel spreadsheets are excellent for many tasks, but you should look to other programs and software for database management if you manage a lot of data, because:

  • It is difficult to restrict viewing and editing access.

  • The search function is limited.

  • Finding and removing duplicates is a real obstacle course.

  • Consulting data on mobile phones (when you’re on the go) is not easy.

  • There is no phone or email support, if you have questions.

We suggest you use Excel for offline backups of your data, and invest in a database management software, preferably online.

It’s easy to find one that suits your nonprofit’s needs! 

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10. Comply with GDPR

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was implemented in 2018 by the European Union to set guidelines for data protection and security.

Even if your nonprofit is located in the United States, we recommend you use it as a guideline for how to protect sensitive data collected from your members and donors.

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To Sum Up

💻 What is the best way to manage your nonprofit’s data?

An online database management software is the most effective and practical solution. Multiple people can access and update the information.

📄 What information should you ask for and keep in the database?

This depends on the needs of your organization. Contact information is definitely a requirement, but you can record email campaigns, donations, and volunteer history. 

👌 How to better manage your association's membership base

Start by appointing a person responsible for the database, set up rules for data entry to maintain consistency, and protect the security of your data! 

You now know how to effectively manage your nonprofit’s database! 

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This article is inspired by Techsoup's article: How to Overcome Your Database Demons.