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I was recently contacted by the vendor behind a new cloud-based donor management system with this question:
"We have noticed that our clients have become much more conscious about archiving/deleting old donor/prospect records because our pricing model is based on the number of records. After talking with some clients, it seems opinions vary wildly regarding this subject.
"For example, one nonprofit archives records every year based on past giving or when someone last interacted with them. But an animal welfare group never archives records because the elderly woman with 15 cats who gave $20 ten years ago may leave them her entire estate. I just wanted to see if you had any insight you could offer regarding this subject."
My response: I am opposed to deleting donor records. While there are ways around it, that typically ends your ability to communicate with the donor, invite the donor to events, re-engage the person, steward the person, or understand why a subsequent gift or bequest came from that donor.
I've heard enough tales of bequests from one-time or small donors to believe that they're real. For my clients with on-premises systems, I see no justification for deleting donors; disk space is cheap. If inactive donors clutter your search results, code them so they don't appear in searches. But don't delete them.
This doesn't mean a nonprofit should send its glossy annual report or magazine to every $5 donor. Organizations need to have a policy about what level of donation gets a particular level of stewardship. You should be able to mark records as inactive after a set time period and stop sending them anything. That's not the same as deleting them.
On the other hand, many nonprofits have bought lists, or added prospects to their database because they saw them listed on another nonprofit's honor roll or read about them in the paper, or a board member said, "So and so has money." I have no quarrel with deleting nonresponsive "prospects" or constituents with no tangible connection to the organization.
I encouraged the vendor to find a pricing model that won't encourage deleting donor records, such as pricing based on concurrent logins, number of modules, number of emails sent, and/or online transactions. All of these approaches have their downsides, of course, but they don't encourage data loss.
Here is a compilation of responses to the same question from the APRA's listserve, PRSPCT-L:
"I would consider any data valuable when it can be utilized for predictive analytics or to build a case for trends. Do you know what the issues are that would prompt their wanting to do away with historical records?"
"I'd be very hesitant to remove a record; maybe they could be marked as inactive or something similar? Is data-storage limits the concern?"
"If it's a record with no financial giving and no actions, is there another reason that it is in the database? I have removed records from databases before that had no financial giving, no actions, no alumni status — no clear reason why they were entered in the first place. (I've worked in institutions in the past that have decided to just enter everyone in a wealthy neighborhood or every local doctor, etc., in the database — that's just taking up space.)"
"We never remove records, but we continually update the coding of records (e.g., deceased; does not want to be contacted; do not email; etc.)
"Rather than deleting the records you may want to consider coding those who have not had any action in 7 years as inactive or some other terminology that has meaning to your organization.
"I would hate for you to delete those records and lose all that data and institutional knowledge that you have been collecting along the way."
"You should not remove records, especially if there is any record of contact or giving in them, even if it is really old. You could mark them inactive, but some databases don't show inactive records when you do a regular lookup, which could lead to duplicate creation. The other problem with marking them inactive, is that sometimes they make contact or give a gift, but someone forgets to remove the inactive code and then they are excluded from queries and mailings, etc.
"I suggest managing them by implementing some way to exclude them from mailings, etc. (e.g., no contact or gifts in the last 7 years)."
"In this day and age, storage is cheap and data is one of your most valuable tools. No sense in removing records. ... "
This post was originally published at http://rlweiner.com/should-you-delete-donor-records and http://rlweiner.com/discussion-of-donor-data-retention.
Image: Shutter_M / Shutterstock
RobertForum Moderator Robert L. Weiner ConsultingStrategic Technology Advisors to Nonprofit and Educational Organizationsrobert [AT] rlweiner [DOT] comwww.rlweiner.com