The Essentials: Database management - Get the most from your data

From mailing deceased donors to losing vital support records, Katherine Demopoulos reveals four of the most common data mistakes and experts offer advice on how best to avoid them.

Recent figures show that the UK's most active charity sends out more than 20 million items of post each year. When you recall that there are 153,000 general charities in the UK, you can begin to imagine just how much information charities keep on file. It's not just names and addresses, but also information on when people give and how often, details of direct debits and any other lifestyle notes an organisation has amassed.

Databases are crucial if charities are to create something intelligent from that mass of information and, ultimately, to buoy their revenues. But in practice many charities' data processes aren't as streamlined as they could be, and some mistakes are repeated by countless organisations. Here we show you how to avoid them.


- Information Commissioner

- Telephone Preference Service

- Mailing Preference Service

- Direct Marketing Association

- Institute of Direct Marketing - Royal Mail's National Change of Address


Most marketers say that mailing the people on their "deceased" file would be their top no-no, but that doesn't stop it happening. "Everyone does it at some point," says Clare Morgan, sales leader at Acxiom Services, who advises on database management solutions.

She says it is a big issue for charities, especially those with an older support base. Not only does it upset relatives, but it also contravenes data protection rules and sullies your image. It is a wasteful mistake, and one that charities can avoid.

Collecting data accurately and then keeping it up to date is a task that's not always tackled well, according to Morgan. She often sees a charity's raw data before it's been cleaned up and says it can be a mess. Data arrives in different formats from different sources and sometimes hasn't been inputted in any structured way.

Data is constantly shifting: every day in the UK, 1,600 people die, 1,800 move house, 650 register with the Mailing Preference Service and 1,300 with the Telephone Preference Service. Morgan's colleague Geri Gordon, head of charities at Acxiom Services, estimates that, before any housekeeping, between 2 and 5 per cent of people on a mailing list of one million names will be dead. Given an average pack price of 25p, the charity could be wasting between £5,000 and £12,500 on each campaign.

The solution

As well as collecting consistent data to begin with, the solution is to cleanse data, and this should be done before each mailing.

Charities can take their contact lists to companies that hold files of people who should not be mailed (suppression files) and have their data cleansed.

"We have a major quarterly mailing - the Paws mailing - which goes out to 45,000 people," says Erkan Hasan, database manager at the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

"Before each Paws mailing, we export this contact group to CCR, which returns it cleansed. We reload it using Charisma and cleanse our data from what CCR sends. This way we remove all the people who have gone away, died or joined the Mailing Preference Service."

Companies that cleanse data - known as bureaux - create their own suppression files and license files from other companies, such as Acxiom, which also sells its products independently. The advantage of using bureaux is that each will have collected an array of files from different suppliers, and a charity doesn't have to trawl around each one.

Martin King, sales director for data asset management company The REaD Group, says some charities simply go for the cheapest option. This can be removing contacts themselves if mail is returned marked "deceased" or "not known at this address", or buying that information. But King warns that people can be removed in error. "Someone could have sent back six car mailings they've had enough of, so they'll remove customers for no good reason," he says.

Going through a bureau is the more accurate way of suppressing data, and King estimates it costs charities 20p a record. Because there are many different lists, all compiled in different ways, charities should seek a recommendation on which to use.


Charities frequently send out the same marketing materials to one contact several times, because their data is held in more than one unlinked database and contains duplications. It usually occurs for historical reasons, because charities buy in or set up new databases on an ad hoc basis to deal with departmental demands as they arise. If a supporter volunteers and donates cash, two separate records would be held on them; a similar situation could arise for larger charities with regional offices that collate their own data.

The solution

Database providers recommend a centralised system. "With a centralised database the return on investment is massive," says Simon Fowler, managing director of the not-for-profit division of the CS Group. "To have one central database with all your people on means you know you're not upsetting them by sending three of the same marketing leaflets."

Fowler says charities are becoming increasingly aware of the issue. He was once approached by a charity with 25 different data sources.

A database provider can merge the databases and clean the resultant data, but charities need to know what they need before product design can begin.

Mike Basketter, senior product manager at Associa, says charities tend to come to him with an overview of what they want, but are unclear on the detail. He probes to find out exactly what they want, because they often don't understand the type of information a tailored database demands.

"We would interrogate each database in terms of its structure, the fields of information, what those fields mean and what the data is used for." He also warns charities to make sure they understand their own limitations: "If you develop a broad system capturing huge amounts of information, but you haven't got enough people to process that data, don't be surprised if you don't have any data in those extended fields that you've created."


Staff can also be an impediment to change, sometimes because they mistrust a new system, don't fully understand it or are unwilling to share the details of supporters they regard as belonging to them. If they don't understand the many ways in which they can cut data from the system, they end up creating new sources.

Fowler says he's come across organisations where people are unwilling to pool data because they are concerned that a database is an open source of information for everyone in the organisation, and fear it will be misused.

"What they don't realise is that the database has the functionality and the complexity to cope with such relationships," he observes.

Far from creating excess contact with supporters, he says, a central system is "to their advantage, because it means that someone isn't going to come across this name by accident doing a bit of cold calling. They will see that someone else in the organisation is actively engaged with that person."

The solution

Centrepoint is a good example of how to do things right. The youth homelessness charity has appointed Stuart Rogers as special projects director to streamline its databases - bought "almost in silos", he says - into a joined-up system.

"No one single database should be departmentally based. It should be serving the needs of the organisation." Rogers says training those who are less computer-savvy is vital, as is demonstrating the importance of the system change. "It's a cultural thing," he contends.

But he adds that a recent implementation of purchase order software onto the charity's main finance system reminded everyone to listen to front-line staff. The system was constructed by head office, meaning that some items staff would need to buy were completely forgotten.

"They put on what were considered the needs of the organisation, but when you talk to people who actually work with young people, they find things we hadn't thought about," he points out.


In a popular episode of Sex and the City, the main character, journalist Carrie, is distraught when her laptop crashes, losing all her work. "How often do you back up?" asks her boyfriend. "Back up?" she replies.

Unfortunately, life in the voluntary sector is too often like this. Philip Jackson, an ICT consultant, says it is a familiar sight among smaller organisations that don't have a strategy in place, and anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is prevalent. "I asked one charity I worked with 'How do you back up data?' The answer was: 'We don't'," he says.

He adds that a small charity that doesn't back up its data could easily lose its entire marketing database just because one computer is stolen or damaged.

A recent survey in the US found that three out of five small to medium-sized businesses don't back up at all, with time outlay and lack of knowledge or resources cited as the explanation.

The solution

Essentially, backing-up means copying data, and each charity will have to work out how often it needs to do this and how much needs to be copied.

Jackson says it is a good idea to keep three back-ups - two permanently off-site with one easily retrievable, and one on-site, which can even be on the PC itself. Depending on the back-up process, the off-site copies will be stored on tape, DVD or CD, the last of which should be reburnt every three or four years.

Jackson says a charity could choose to manually or automatically copy either all of its data each time, or only the files that have been amended or a mixture of the two - and could even keep hard copies of financial data. Essentially, it's down to common sense, says Jackson. For a small charity, back-up could even mean simply burning a CD at the end of each day and taking it home.


'It's a real no-no to mail someone who's died. Avoid at all costs' Erkan Hasan, database manager, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

'Know what it is you need and don't be tempted by a database that can do 90 per cent more. Don't let the data you've got go to waste'

Geri Gordon, head of charities, Acxiom Services


'A database helps you make sense of your information. But remember - garbage in: garbage out'

Mike Basketter, senior product manager, Associa

'Don't look at it too singularly. Any new approach to data management should be taken organisation-wide and not through each department'

Stuart Rogers, special projects director, Centrepoint.

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