Mary, Mary, How Does Your Data Grow? - Part 1

“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.” – Gertrude Jekyll

We in prospect development can agree that the bedrock of our work is trust in our expertise and our data. Bad data will stick out like a pink tulip in a field of daffodils. And much like tending to a garden, you cannot plug your fundraisers’ planned solicitations into a database in July, ignore them all year and expect useable reporting information in June.

But how to manage this? How do we preserve our data integrity and not lose the good opinion of our development officers? Here at the University of Washington (UW), we know our data cannot properly flourish without careful monitoring. Thus, data audits were born.

Tilling the Soil

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade” – Rudyard Kipling

Our prospect management team has been running audits for more than 10 years. At first, these audits were run quarterly, but the team quickly realized this data deluge was too big a lift for the staff. Instead, they built a system that would run daily. Our audits are based in an Access database using queries; we affectionately call it the Auditor. We are fortunate to have direct access to our back end data, which makes this process relatively straightforward. Now, instead of waiting until the last day of the harvest each season and trying to gather all our crops at once, we can harvest small, manageable amounts every day. We are able to catch errors in real time, before they become a bigger problem.

Our early processes were designed to catch common user errors, such as missing ask dates or prospects with no relationship manager (RM). We were not able to customize our CRM enough to stop data entry mistakes entirely, so audits made up for database inadequacies. As our fundraising staff and priorities have grown and changed, so have our querying needs. What started as a few dozen audits has steadily increased to the 130 queries we have today. Once the Auditor was in place, there was no end to the possibilities. Keeping our prospect pools tidy and growing neatly requires regular tending and pruning, so we audit daily, monthly, quarterly and semi-annually.

Luckily, not all of our audits generate results daily, and between our team of four, we are able to stay on top of them. We run the Auditor first thing every day. With the click of a button, the queries cycle through via Visual Basic code and generate emails that push to our inboxes. On a light day, this takes 10 minutes or less. At the end of a reporting period, it might take upwards of 30 minutes, but it is always manageable.

From Seed to Harvest

“A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.” – Liberty Hyde Bailey

You have to keep weeding and watering your garden to maintain its fruitfulness, and you have to keep creating new audits even when it seems like things are moving along fine. Query maintenance is a time-intensive but important part of the auditing process. The most recent update to our audit process is maintaining proper documentation. This starts with grouping our audits, which at UW fall into four categories:

When our audits were few in number, each one’s purpose was easily intuited and there was no need for written explanation. However, with the increasing number of audits and new staff who were not familiar with either our CRM or our policies, we realized that clear documentation and instructions were critical. We now have a manual that lays out for each audit both the purpose and instructions for cleaning up results, as well as an archival process for audits we no longer need or use. We can now ensure that we are not planting carrots where we have already planted potatoes.

Even the most mindful gardeners may find that things slip through the cracks and weeds spring up in the flowerbed. Despite a well-established process with the Auditor, we realized that we needed another dedicated time to focus on data integrity. Thus, Data Days was born!

At least twice a year, we schedule an entire day to focus on data hygiene — whether that means running less frequent audits, catching up on data projects that have been put off or simply archiving old performance reports. The day is all about data, data, data. It may not be glamorous, but neither is aeration, and good dirt is the basis for anything to grow.

Am I Ready for A Garden?

“A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity.” – Alexander Smith

So how do you build a robust data auditing process at your shop? Do you even need a data auditing process? We would argue everyone needs data audits, even if they are only run once a year.

Measuring and reporting on development officer work is mission critical, and clean data is the foundation of that work. But we realize that not everyone has a dedicated prospect management team, and in small shops, one person may wear many hats. How do you make the argument to your leadership that data auditing is worth your time? We suggest formatting your argument around your organization’s bedrock: its values. Values lead to policy, policy leads to procedures, procedures lead to business rules, and one of the best tools for making sure that business rules are being followed is audits.

Here at the University of Washington, we value donor relationships above all else. Our business rules and policies — open cultivation, relationship managers, contact report requirements, etc. — support this tenet and our audits help keep this data fresh. Our data stores our donor history, and if the data is faulty, it can negatively impact our donor relationships. Because our leadership shares these values, they support our choice to audit. They show this support in a number of ways: providing us with student employees to help process the audits, funding our attendance at trainings and conferences around big data, and encouraging us to partner with our colleagues in other advancement departments (information management, gift services) who also have a stake in clean data.

In addition to leadership buy-in, you may have to convince your team (or yourself) that audits are feasible. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of weeds in a garden and quickly decide it is not worth trying to clear an area to start planting. However, we argue that audits are both necessary and doable. As one of our colleagues noted, “You can do far more than you think you can with not a lot of technical expertise. Don’t be scared.” You will quickly discover that you can invest as little or as much time as you want in audits and there will be a huge return on your time investment.

Keep an eye out for part two of this article, when authors Cynthia Lee and Krista Berg share technical tips and details for building a data audit program.


Krista Berg is a prospect management strategist at the University of Washington. She has been working in development for over 10 years, starting as a student caller at the UW. She is also the current president of her regional chapter of Apra, Apra-NW.

Cynthia Lee is a prospect management strategist at the University of Washington. She has been working in development for over 10 years and in prospect management since 2011.

Looking for more information on maintaining relationships? Check out Plug In to Relationship Management, Apra’s virtual event coming this November, for a deep dive that can be taken right from your computer.

If you can't wait till November to learn more about relationship management, download the Apra University Relationship Management Bundle 1. For a discounted price, you can download five relationship management-focused sessions, including "More Than a Data Scrub: Crafting an Ongoing Portfolio Consultation Service" and "A Decade of Supporting Open Cultivation."

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