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How and why charities should focus on processing donor data

How and why charities should focus on processing donor data

David Murray at The Software Bureau explains why charities have a duty of care when processing their donor data.

Why should charities clean their data? Because every time they reach out and communicate with their committed givers or potential donors they leave an imprint, an impression of the kind of organisation they represent. Make no mistake; charities own a brand that they have a duty to protect as much as any commercial operation.

Every data owner has a duty of care to ensure that the data base they hold and the mailings they produce are relevant, accurate and cost-efficient whatever the brand, whatever the sector. And operating in one of the chief mailing sectors, charities have a particular duty to protect their brand by communicating responsibly and appropriately and have a unique duty to their beneficiaries to ensure they extract maximum value from mailing activity.

And all that before you even consider the data protection act, environmental concerns, and the pressures of ensuring retention and reactivation and avoiding mailing fatigue. Considering the increasing cost of customer acquisition and retention, and the negative press coverage that direct mail has received recently, reliable and accurate data management is essential for charities and those that fail to realise this risk damaging the reputation of the whole sector.

Fundamentally, data cleaning ensures data is kept up to date and flags supporters in your database or on your mailing list that absolutely should not be mailed. So, those who have died, those who no longer live at an address, or those who have opted not to receive direct mail or have an inaccurate name or mailing address should constitute an absolute industry standard list of criteria for any organization not to be mailed.

At best, an inaccurate mailing can be mildly amusing or considered “junk mail” – at worst, it can be deeply insensitive and tarnish your reputation for life with a potential donor or existing donor.

Another key reason to clean data is to ensure you have each supporter at an individual level with no duplicates with a correct spelled name and address. There is nothing worse than a charity sending multiple pieces of communications to a single supporter or a badly or incorrectly addressed piece – and no quicker way to turn a warm prospect into a distant memory.

Without these old and/or incorrect entries, your database should work better for you, giving you a true, accurate and up-to-date “single supporter view” enabling mailings to become smaller and more focused, thus saving money and increasing the ROI. This is an intrinsic factor for charities hoping to reach new donors and communicate with existing supporters whilst at the same time having to fulfill a moral obligation to not waste existing donors’ money.

Arguably, no sector is at risk of being tarred with the junk mail brush more than the charity sector, simply because no other sector is, arguably, so dependent on direct mail.

Whilst it’s true that targeting is just as important for online communications, it is specifically offline mail that has come under fire. And like it or not, a large proportion of most charities incomes comes from the older generation, a group that are potentially harder to emigrate online.

Latest figures show that, acquisition and retention of supporters via direct mail is still healthy – within the charity sector. In a world where environmental pressures are avalanching, the online revolution is upon us and consumers are increasingly marketing-savvy, the key target audience for many charities remains the same. A large proportion of charity donors are still more comfortable with communication they can hold in their hand – and that’s an enviable place to be for charities looking to engender long-term loyalty.

But with the privilege comes a crucial responsibility – the duty to target appropriately, protect the reputations of their organisation and the sector as a whole.

So clean data should be the starting point for any charity. Never have there been so many options open to all sizes of charities, with bureaux services offered not only by traditional bureaux but by printers, mailing houses and print brokers and the growth of online bureaux and software companies now empowering charities with their to bring data processing in house.

At the end of the day if all charities follow a comprehensive data cleaning program either using one or all of the above it will mean that direct marketing will continue to thrive in the market it is still most effective for. Charities owe it to the sector, they owe it to their donors and they owe it to their beneficiaries.


The Software Bureau develops and implements market-leading software that places the power of data management for direct marketing into the hands of their clients. Since the launch of flagship brand Cygnus in 2000, The Software Bureau has worked with a raft of industry companies, household name brands and some of the UK’s largest charitable organisations, implementing Cygnus and empowering them with cost-effective, responsible and secure data processing – inhouse.

Widely recognised as the leading name in independent data processing, Cygnus encapsulates a full range of data preparation techniques within an accessible software package – and is essentially a ‘bureau in a box’. Since 2007, Cygnus has been updated with an Embedded Suppression module, featuring some of the UK’s most effective suppression files including MortaScreen, disConnect, USS, Xpression, GAS, TBR, BSF and MPS.

Current clients include Help the Aged, Mind, Amnesty International, eSure, Direct Wines Ltd, Homeserve, Tullo Marshall Warren, Golley Slater, Response One and Howitt.

Howard Lake is a digital fundraising entrepreneur. Publisher of UK Fundraising, the world's first web resource for professional fundraisers, since 1994. Trainer and consultant in digital fundraising. Founder of Fundraising Camp.

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