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Excel - Why it isn't a Donor Database


Excel is a great program. It is perfect for crunching numbers, tracking budgets, and herding gobs of numbers into organized columns and rows in order to easily make sense of them. Unfortunately, too many organizations use Excel to track their most valuable asset – their donors. Here are a few reasons why a donor database is the investment you should make to protect and grow your assets.



Excel spreadsheets are not secure. Stored locally on your computer, it takes only one lightening strike or hard drive failure to erase years of data. Backing up your data regularly? That’s a good start, but not sufficient to protect your data. Security extends further than just not losing your file. What if you miss a column when you sort your database? Years of data may have just become jumbled, and you may not even know it until it is too late to fix. What about access to your donor information? You may be responsible for some of your donors’ most personal information – do other employees have access to the file? Do clients use the same network? Excel does not safeguard against disgruntled employees, thieves or hackers, and does not even track who logged into the file.

Most donor database solutions provide excellent security. Many have an online-only option, where your data is stored on their servers, safely tucked away in a climate-controlled room and backed up regularly. If multiple employees need access to the database, each can be assigned their own username, making it easy to track who logged in and even what changes they made. Donor databases restrict mass changes to files – it is nearly impossible to make a mistake that would delete, jumble, or otherwise contaminate more than a single donor record.

Data Integrity

Excel can’t tell if you use PA or Pennsylvania in a cell. Excel won’t check to be sure you haven’t put the campaign name and donation amount in the wrong columns. There are no prompts to be sure you use the correct envelope salutation. Donor databases make it much easier to be sure the right information gets into the right place in the right format. This is critical to keeping your data “clean” and making sure it is as easy to use as possible in the future.

Data Tracking

Excel allows you to track data in rows and columns. Eventually, you will either have a row for each gift, and multiple entries for a single donor, or you will have really wide rows, with multiple gifts and campaigns, three spots for email addresses because one donor may have that many, and you will spend hours looking for the simplest answers due to the overwhelming amount of data crammed onto a single page.

Donor databases allow you to link records, making it easy to create multiple gift records for a single donor, create relationships between donors (father-son; board member-friend), apply soft credits to accounts (such as matching gifts or tributes), and track as little or as much data as you need for each donor.


This is where Excel has some real limitations. How do you figure out your LYBUNTs and SYBUNTs? Sort and re-sort? How many of your donors met your “silver” giving level this year? What is Mr. Smith’s lifetime giving total? How much did this year’s annual appeal raise compared to previous years? Who has pledges outstanding? Donor databases come with a host of standard reports and queries to make reporting and segmenting easy. Additional custom reports are usually easy to create.

CRM or Customer Relationship Management

In business sales, customer relationship management programs like Act! allow sales people to track their correspondence with clients and set follow up reminders. Donor databases combine the features of CRM software with gift tracking. You can keep notes of each contact you make, set reminders, and create and track correspondence, whether it is an appeal letter, a thank you letter, a pledge reminder email, or a phone call. If you tried this in Excel, your spreadsheet would quickly become overwhelming.

Wouldn’t it be nice to send your major donors a birthday card? Too time consuming? What if it took 30 seconds to run a report each month, and you were able to print out a list with names, addresses, and the date of their birthday, and another 15 minutes writing out the cards and mailing them to the major donors on the list. Would you be more inclined to spend time cultivating donors if you could prioritize and organize your tasks?

Bottom Line

Bottom line? Donor databases combine all the features you need to protect your donors’ information and improve your fundraising. Your donor list and giving history is your organization’s most valuable asset, and improving your fundraising is the only way to provide better service to more clients. What is that worth to you?