The Mikuska Group  

Fear and loathing: Databases

What comes to mind when someone mentions “database”? Do your eyes glaze over? Do you curl into the foetal position? Scream in frustration? Think that someone is talking about a spreadsheet?

You’re not alone. Many non-profit organizations have had little to no experience with a database, let alone success. A database seems to be shrouded in mystery, hidden behind a ubiquitous fog that seems impenetrable. When it comes to extracting the data to use in a mailout, or – horrors! – analyze your donor base, you muck through as best you can and say a little prayer to the gods of IT that your results are reliable.

I’m here to say that it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s worth the investment to engage a professional who knows what they are doing to teach you good practices and principles of data management. Good data is the underpinning of a great fundraising program. Notice I said good data, because as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. You have to pay attention to what you enter into your database and how you do it. Make sure you have someone who is familiar with the principles of fundraising, so you can tailor your learning to maximize the use of your database.

Some examples of what a data management program can help you accomplish:

  • track total donations for each donor/household
  • let you find out if you’re losing donors and take action
  • identify donors who you may be able to approach and ask to be a monthly donor
  • track activities that engage donors – did they attend the gala? Come to your open house? Meet with the board chair? Use this information to further engage them in your work
  • choose which donors will receive a special mailing based on their donation history

Your data is as important as your staff. You can’t be effective if you don’t know who your donors are. Make the investment – the results will speak for themselves.

Laura Mikuska




fear and loathing – (Hunter S. Thompson) A state inspired by the prospect of dealing with certain real-world systems and standards that are totally brain-damaged but ubiquitous – Intel 8086s,COBOL, EBCDIC, or any IBM machine except the Rios (also known as the RS/6000).



The fundraising audit 101

You need a fundraising audit if:

  • you have a mature program and want to know how you can propel it to the next level
  • you have an events-based program and you want to start a major gifts program
  • you aren’t sure whether your program is effective
  • you want to start a fundraising program

The audit looks at your processes, policies and technology and how effective they are in supporting your program.

Processes: how you ask, acknowledge, thank, recognize, research and communicate, and who is involved

Policies: general fundraising, gift acceptance, prospective donor identification and research, naming and recognition, third-party fundraising

Technology: what you are using to keep records and generate reports

The audit reveals how you are performing now and what is required to meet your goals. It includes departments or functions outside the development office (e.g. finance, communications, marketing). It looks at how your board is (or is not) involved and what their understanding is of their role.

The audit also looks at how your development plan supports the overall organizational goals, and vice versa.

Julie Mikuska.


Pick up the phone!

You’ve identified a pool of major gift prospects from your database. You spend the next two weeks amassing research to find out all you can about them. You give the results of your research to your Development Director or Executive Director and they send it back with a request for more information. You spend more time and effort to eke out a few more details and return it to them. You follow up in a few days and find out they haven’t acted on the information.

Is this a familiar scenario in your organization?

Many people hide behind research as a way of avoiding contact with their donors. It’s a scary prospect to pick up the phone and talk to someone you don’t know. Few realize that the donor is the best source of information! People love to talk about themselves, especially if it’s in the context of a cause near and dear to their heart. Engaging with donors makes them part of a two-way conversation and they in turn feel valued.

Next time you identify a major gift prospect – pick up the phone!

Laura Mikuska


Your database is just for data, right?

When you receive a donation, or a ticket order for your special event, in all likelihood you enter the donor’s particulars into a spreadsheet or a database, produce the receipt or ticket and mail it off with a thank you. End of story. Repeat next year.

Do you do anything with your data other than produce event lists or financial reports? If not, you should!

Data can provide a wealth of information about your supporters and your relationship with them. Here are some examples:

  • record as much as you know about the donor’s family, employment and interests
  • track and analyze donations
  • record involvement in your organization, including volunteerism, attendance at events, serving on the board or committees

Why is this important? It means better stewardship and contributes to engaging your donors more deeply in your mission. If you know their interests, you can personalize the appeal you send. If you see they’ve been making regular donations, you might suggest a monthly giving program. You might also invite them to events or gatherings for your special donors, and ask them how you’re doing.

If you’re considering a major fundraising initiative, the first place to look for donors is in your database. They already support and believe in you! It’s much easier to work with the donors you have than to attract new ones. If you have managed your relationship with donors effectively, you’ll know who to approach to start the conversation about a legacy gift.

Invest in a database. Your supporters will thank you.

Laura Mikuska


Do you know your donors?

If your development director left the organization suddenly, taking with him or her all the institutional memory about your donors, would there be a smooth transition to the next development staff person?  Or do you pale at the thought of losing the only person who has that knowledge?

The good news is, you can mitigate the loss of data by implementing a donor management system. That’s fancy talk for a database, which you use to manage all aspects of the relationship between you and your donors. It has to be more than a collection of Excel spreadsheets (or even index cards!), because your relationship is more complex than a list of annual donations. You must be able to record family and other relationships, employment, contacts, interests, donations, pledges and more. The more you know, the better you will be able to engage your donors.

Let’s say John Donor has been a regular supporter for a number of years and you ‘d like to approach him to consider a larger gift to a special campaign. In a donor management system, you would be able to verify that in fact, he would be interested in this special campaign because he has supported a similar initiative in the past. If you had recorded donations on a spreadsheet, this would be a tedious and time consuming task to verify this. In addition, you may have also recorded his place of employment, which you have discovered has a matching gift program for its employees, especially for initiative such as yours. You might also find out that he has family members who are also interested in this special campaign – why not approach them for a family gift? You get the gist.

Relationship management is the science behind the art of asking and donor engagement. It’s an investment that will enhance your development program many times over.

Laura Mikuska


Prospect research: a fundraiser’s best friend

I can just hear the groaning and imagine the eye-rolling from fundraisers now – why do I have to do research? Can’t I just go out and ask for money? Research is boring – I’m a “people person”!

Well, why is it a good idea to do research?

Research assists in the development of relationships and fundraising is a relationship business. It allows you to:

  • make effective and informed decisions about your prospects and donors
  • target only those prospects with an interest in your organization
  • develop a cultivation and solicitation strategy to make an ask appropriate to the prospect’s ability to give

Most donors are pretty savvy these days, and will expect you to have done your homework. Prepare yourself and you will be pleasantly surprised at your next donor meeting.

A word of caution – don’t get paralyzed by the notion of finding out “everything” about a donor before picking up the phone. Once you’ve gathered enough to make some decisions, call and set a time to meet, or invite them down to see what impact you’re having on the community. Then use your “people skills” and build the relationship.

Laura Mikuska


Don’t let the tail wag the dog: Why policies are critical in fundraising programs

Imagine you are the director of development at a small non-profit organization. An enthusiastic member of your board of directors says he will talk to his friend who is a business owner and would be willing to sponsor a fundraising event you are holding soon. You say, “Great! Go ahead!” because you are always looking for sponsors. You discover after giving the go-ahead to the board member that there are serious issues regarding his friend’s business that could have an impact on the reputation of your organization. But – you have no policies in place to deny the sponsorship. Plus you risk alienating your board member who used his contacts to raise funds.

Too many organizations pay too little attention to developing and maintaining sound fundraising and gift acceptance policies. Board members and staff who are unaware of their importance often encounter dilemmas that could easily be easily addressed through such policies. The situation above is one that could have been avoided with a fundraising policy that included prospect clearance and by a gift acceptance policy that states that an organization will not accept gifts from individuals or organizations that, in the opinion of the board of directors, will compromise the non-profit’s mission.

Good policies and procedures make for good decision-making. The director of development will feel confident about a board member approaching people for gifts in the knowledge that the appropriate steps have been taken to ensure the right person is asking the right prospect for the right gift at the right time. The board member will feel confident in the knowledge he has the right information and permission to make the ask.

Have you reviewed your policies lately?

Julie Mikuska.



What about “success rate”?

I’m often asked about success rates when identifying prospects for an organization, for example X number of prospects leads to X number of gifts or successful asks. Here is why this isn’t relevant.

  1. Fundraising is a relationship business. Research is but one part of the process.
  2. Cultivating and soliciting the gift is the role of the fundraiser (volunteer or staff) and success depends on many factors.
  3. A prospect identified now may only result in a gift much further down the road.
  4. Research may have identified a prospect that appears to be a good one, but upon approach has completely changed their giving focus (from environment to at-risk kids, for example).
  5. The prospect’s circumstances may have changed in the interim and they may no longer have any interest in the project due to changes in their corporate or personal life.

We can’t find out everything about a prospect (which, in my opinion, is a good thing!) before we approach them. Use prospect research as a tool in your fundraising program to make informed decisions about who and when to approach.

The best way to evaluate a prospect’s interests and ability to give is to discover them through a face-to-face meeting. There you can infuse your passion for your organization into the conversation and get to know them better.

– Laura Mikuska


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