Is Donor Data Enough?

Tim Sarrantonio

You might have set yourself up for failure by choosing a donor management system.

A few years ago I was working for a fantastic art studio for adults with developmental disabilities in Chicago. Early on working there I was tasked with managing our donor database as well as reconciling art purchases from a homegrown database. I scoured the internet, found a forum where volunteers would help create a database on your behalf using open source technology, and got to work.

It failed. Badly. In retrospect, I had focused too much on tracking the monetary side of my interactions with donors and not enough on understanding why people were excited about the mission.

That experience did open my eyes to the power of customization when it comes to your database. There are some concrete differences that come with choosing the difference between a donor management system or an actual constituent relationship management (CRM) database.

You shouldn’t need to customize to do the basics right

We’ve talked about the concept of creating custom objects before and how it compares to the big player in the market that allows this – Salesforce. Check out those other posts if you need a primer on the basics but the TLDR is that we’re built only for nonprofits and zero in on the core needs they have without needing to create a customized table.

A lot of databases don’t have the option of creating a custom object. When you log in, they’ve curated the experience as they feel you should see it and for the types of data they think you should be tracking. They might even slap the letters CRM onto their marketing for good measure. A pretty interface with donor profiles that have auto-receipts and pledge management is good enough, right?

Limits in data mean limits in capacity building

The unfortunate reality is that systems with intentional design limits on what data you can create and manage automatically mean you have to turn toward shadow databases to manage things. Does the following sound familiar?

  • Excel files for the grants manager
  • Constant Contact lists for the marketing team
  • Donor management system
  • Accounting platform that doesn’t connect to anything
  • Payment processor login portal
  • Salesforce database (free?) for program or volunteer management
  • Your executive director’s inbox for major donor interactions

We’ve been operating in a world where the possibility of being able to bring all functions into a cohesive and flowing system of record is so far from a reality that we just accept it can’t be done within our budgets. That type of system is only for enterprise nonprofits who pay a lot of money for Salesforce or Blackbaud, right?

Becoming the change nonprofits needed

We at Neon decided that shouldn’t be the case. About a year ago, we looked at the direction of the nonprofit market and realized that the only way forward was creating a path that allowed nonprofits of any size to have software that brought together all core needs any organization needs while then allowing true growth by creating a truly diverse ecosystem for any type of data to flow into NeonCRM.

The ability to create any data structure needed can have an immediate impact in the following three areas:

  1. Generating new revenue
  2. Saving valuable staff time
  3. Building capacity through retention

Let’s unpack exactly how a custom object can lead to these three outcomes.

Generating new revenue

Let’s go back to my original issue at the arts organization. If I had NeonCRM, I would have been able to cover the basics of donor management, events management, and communications all in one place. Yet what about tracking the pieces of art that the organization was producing on an almost regular basis?

A transaction based approach might put those items into an online store. But that wouldn’t take into account the relationship focused nature of art itself. What happens if I wanted to track the artists and program data within my database in full and then be able to tie the art directly to the constituents who sponsored it for grant reporting?

Answer? A custom object would be able to do that.

Saving valuable staff time

Solid donor management systems allow for automation of the basics for receipting, mailings, and analyzing standard donations data. Yet what happened if I want to centralize tracking of the scholarships or services I provide to constituents?

Using custom objects, I would be able to create a listing of all the scholarships or services that are offered, the dates related to when they were given out, and tie those to the same people records I’m used to tracking donations and events with. Yet what happens if I wanted to create a special form to track the application for the scholarship itself?

Our custom objects were designed to also create online forms and emails to go with them, which means your staff could drop using Excel, email, and other manual entry tactics when it comes to engaging data beyond transactions.

What would you do if all that time importing and exporting lists was now free?

Building capacity through retention

We all know that retention is a major problem in the nonprofit industry. A big reason is that donors don’t feel that the nonprofit is listening to exactly why they’re donating to the mission itself. Without understanding donor behavior in advance and anticipating what someone is going to do, your organization is going to lose a lot of donors.

So what does this have to do with custom objects? Think about the large amount of political activity occurring today. What happens if you were able to track each action a constituent took to show their support for your mission? Each email or call to a legislator? Every petition? What happens if you were then able to turn around and tailor a message to those constituents because you could send a direct mailing that references their previous interaction with you? Right down to the date and notes provided by the constituent?

We’re hard wired to respond to things that speak to us directly. When you look at yourself in the mirror, do you see your end of year tax statement? Or do you see someone with passions that go beyond the data collected in your donor database? Ensuring you can leverage data in a proactive and actionable way is what we’ve created for you.

We want to ensure that your database reflects who you want to connect with and in the way you want to connect with them.


  • Toudjidoum

    Our tip tittled” Is donor data enough?” when I read the content of your tip; donor data is not enough.
    Actually, another database such as yours is very important for the following of my project.
    Therefore , I engage you to establish my organization database system in view to enlarge my capacity of working with Donors, National volunteers, vis versa.
    Then I would like to connect to Excel file for the grants Manager- constant contact lists for the marketing team- Donors management system accounting platform.
    Obviously I undrestand to flow into Neon CRM in order to benefit the following ones:
    – Generating new revenue;
    – Saving valuable staff time;
    – Building capacity through retention.
    In addition I truly thank you for everything you to do for the emerging leaders.
    May God give you long life and perfect healthy.
    Once more, please embed my organization into Neon CRM database.

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