Information, Data, Volunteers, and Donors: Fitting the Pieces Together

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Back in the Dark Ages (in 1984, to be precise), I went to work as a software programmer for a computer company. In my business unit, we had thousands of computer components that flowed through our facility. The chief function of the software I worked on was to keep track of all of these individual components. 

Information about these components was used throughout the organization. The accountants wanted to know how much it costs to handle and repair each item; the marketing folks wanted to know how much we could charge for an item. My friends in the warehouse needed to know where each individual item was stored. Customers wanted to know what we had on hand.

Our leadership recognized the value of this information and was willing to hire people like me to ensure that the data was accurate and available to people throughout the organization in a form they could use.  

In the world of volunteer home repair organizations, the key unit of information we deal with is people: the people we serve, those who volunteer with us, and those who support our organizations through their financial donations. To sustain and grow our work, we need to invest in our capacity to track and utilize this information.

The good news for home repair nonprofits is that the tools needed to manage information about people exist today in the form of Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems. CRM systems were originally built to manage the customer sales cycle in for-profit organizations.

Today, excellent CRMs exist that have been created specifically for nonprofits and focus on managing information about donors, tracking donation history, and automatic the process of acknowledging donations and preparing fundraising campaigns. Good solutions exist for organizations of all sizes, budgets, and levels of technical sophistication.

For organizations engaged in fundraising, the benefits of having accurate information about all of your donors are obvious. And for anyone who has ever tried to manage a fundraising program using spreadsheets, the benefits of using a well-designed database program are also clear! Beyond the obvious functions, like recording actual donations, CRMs provide the ability to record the history of our communication with a donor, capture family relationships, communication and acknowledgment preferences, and other information that can inform our future fundraising approaches.

For those organizations without a well-functioning CRM, here are some resources to help you tackle this challenge. The first is the recording of a recent ReFrame webinar I gave that covers how to go about evaluating and selecting the right CRM for your organization. Additionally, an excellent report and other materials on CRMs can be downloaded from my website.

CRMs are also capable of capturing information about our volunteers. Volunteer-driven organizations should take advantage of this capability because:

  • Our volunteers are potential financial donors. If we have done our work well, they will have been moved by their volunteer experience. As organizations, if we build ongoing relationships with our volunteers, many will increase their commitment to our work by becoming donors. 
  • For organizations that use youth as volunteers, parents are a major fundraising opportunity. For youth, a rich volunteer experience is a positive life event that is noticed and appreciated by many parents.
  • Youth volunteers “grow up” to become our staff members. Our database of information on volunteers can be mined to find potential staff recruits.
  • Finally, youth volunteers - particularly those who also became staff members - are our strongest pool of future donors. The challenge is the 5+ year lag between when an individual served on staff and when they are likely able to start giving regularly. A well-managed CRM can help us maintain our relationship with this population as they move into the work world and begin to be able to give back to some of the organizations that nurtured them.

To summarize, every home repair organization should invest in:

  • A modern, well-managed CRM.
  • Use their CRM to manage donor and volunteer information.
  • Capture available family information and actively communicate with parents of youth volunteers (including presenting your case for support and asking for donations);
  • Incorporate a communication strategy targeting volunteers and former volunteers.

Rick Eaton was Executive Director of Sierra Service Project (2001-2017) and a ReFrame Association board member (2014-2017). He is currently engaged in a number of different activities, one of which is Eaton Nonprofit Solutions, part of the ReFrame consulting network.