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5 Data Hygiene Tips You Should Be Using for Fundraising

June 23rd, 2014 Posted in Fundraising

A 2013 eNonprofit benchmark study found that fundraising email response rates dropped 21 percent, while list churn rates were up 23 percent from 2012. Keeping a clean donor email list can help you reduce bounce rates and spam responses—leading to higher response rates and lower list churn. What’s more, a clean list ensures you’re engaging with the constituents most likely to support your cause.

Nonprofit software provider Blackbaud’s Vice President of Product Development, Mary Beth Westmoreland, forecasts data hygiene to be a key technology trend for the nonprofit sector in 2014: “It enables [nonprofits] to collect more donations and be more successful in their membership drives,” she says. “Because the data is [reliable], they’re able to email clients and fundraise more effectively.”

Whether your donor list is 5,000 or 500,000 records, practicing good data hygiene is worth the effort. Here are five key tips to help you get your list clean—and keep it that way.

Tools You’ll Need

There are a variety of free and paid software options and services, such as and, that can handle your list-cleaning process. Additionally, many email marketing services and constituent relationship management applications, such as Salesforce and DonorPerfect, can automate much of this process—which will make the next step a lot easier for you.

If you have a small number of records to maintain, it’s possible to perform cleanup manually, but keep in mind that more records means more work. The larger your email list, the more important it is to use an application built to handle email marketing and list management.

Step 1: Record Current Metrics

Before cleaning, you’ll want to record a few metrics so that after cleaning, you can compare the numbers to see how much your list performance improved. There are dozens of email metrics that can be collected, but the following are meaningful for most organizations:

  • Bounce rate. The bounce rate is the percentage of emails sent that are returned as undeliverable. (Read more about bounce rates in Step 3.)
  • Unsubscribe rate. This is the number of recipients who have opted-out of receiving future emails. Depending on your industry, an unsubscribe rate of .5 percent or less is considered good. An unsubscribe rate higher than this indicates that your list, email content quality or both could use attention.
  • Open rate. The open rate is the percentage of people who viewed or opened one of your emails.
  • Click-through rate. This metric indicates the percentage of recipients who clicked on links and landed on the desired Web page.
  • Conversion rate. This rate reflects the number of recipients who did what you wanted them to do, such as make a donation or sign up to volunteer.

Most email marketing services (e.g. Constant Contact and MailChimp) will track and calculate these rates automatically. If you send emails and manage your list manually, or your email marketing service doesn’t track this data, then you’ll need to collect the data by hand. With this method, your insights will likely be limited to bounce and unsubscribe rates unless you are well-versed in analytics.

Step 2: Validate Addresses and Compile Bounce Records

When you know your baseline metrics, you can start cleaning up. This requires assessing flagged records and making careful decisions about whether they should be purged or updated.

Using your list-cleaning software or manual bounce records, find the addresses that bounced. Here are five common types of email bounces you might see:

  1. Undeliverable. This means that the receiving email server is not found. It could be temporarily unavailable (for example, down for maintenance), or the result of a permanent failure.
  2. Invalid address. When an address is flagged as invalid, it means it doesn’t exist. This may be because there is a typo in the address, the donor gave you a fake address or the address no longer exists.
  3. Auto-responders. An email will bounce when the recipient has set up an auto-responder. People often use these when they go on vacation to alert senders that they are unavailable.
  4. Blocked. Your IP address is likely blacklisted or greylisted, and is being blocked on the receiving server. The bounce notification will give you helpful information about the reason your address is blocked.
  5. Inbox full. The recipient’s email inbox is full and can’t accept more communications until it’s cleared. The email service provider will continue to attempt delivery for up to 72 hours.

Bounces are referred to as “hard” when there is a permanent delivery failure, as in the case of an invalid address. They’re called “soft” when delivery failure is temporary, as in the case of server downtime or when a recipient’s mailbox is full.

Step 3: Purge and Update Records

Most of the time, hard bounces can be purged, but it’s a good practice to look records over first to see if you can identify why they bounced.

Ross Hendrickson, chief operating officer of fundraising software vendorBloomerang, says to start with the obvious when selecting records to purge. “Purge records of donors who haven’t donated in the last three years. Then look at the records of people on your list that have never donated and purge those older than two years,” he says.

Kelly Flint, Constant Contact’s area director for the western U.S., advises fundraisers to “keep in mind that you should purge or [update] the contacts thatbounce, not those who don’t open your email. What if that contact is reading your email, but viewing your email from an old device, or they chose not to enable images? This would show up as unopened, even though they are in fact engaging.”

Flint says, “No one knows your donors better than you, and this knowledge is crucial when cleaning your list. For example, say you notice one of your best donors showed up as a bounce: in this situation, it would be worth your time to follow up with a quick call to see if they changed their email address. This way, you’re not losing out on a valuable touch-point, and are keeping your list updated.”

If the hard bounce is an invalid address, it could simply be a typo. For example, you might notice bounced back as invalid because the domain,, was spelled incorrectly. In this case, fix the typo and test the email through the validation software again. If it doesn’t bounce, the record is good.

If you’re unsure of what to do with a record, it’s a good idea to send a final appeal before purging a contact from the list. If a recipient doesn’t respond, then it’s probably safe to remove them. Flint says, “It takes seven touches on average before a person is ready to donate. Some contacts on your list may need a year or longer before they’re ready to give to or volunteer with you, so don’t be too quick to remove these less-engaged contacts.”

Also, make sure to remove duplicate records so recipients receive only one email from you. Most clean-up software will locate and remove duplicates automatically, though you can still perform this task manually by filtering for duplicate recordsusing a spreadsheet.

Finally, remove anyone who unsubscribed from your list. Most list management software handles this step for you. To handle this manually, compare your list to your unsubscribe records to make sure everyone who opted out of your email list was removed.

Step 4: Enhance Records

Once you’ve purged unnecessary records, consider enhancing the remaining records with other donor information. Flint suggests dividing up your list based on donor interests or engagement level. Fundraising and donor management software makes this easy by allowing you to create tags to segment donors by criteria that’s most useful to your email fundraising strategy.

By segmenting your list, you can sharpen your campaign messages based on what donors have shown interest in or how they’ve supported your organization in the past. “For example, if someone has given to the scholarship fund, send them content that explains the effectiveness the scholarships are having on your mission,” says Hendrickson.

Targeted email campaigns that speak to a donor’s interests will improve click-through and conversion rates. You can pinpoint donor interest by contacting donors and asking for the information; by reviewing past interactions to glean what their interests and preferences might be; or by checking analytics data to see where donors clicked-through and converted on previous campaigns.

This step requires some legwork, but it results in highly-optimized fundraising campaigns.

Step 5: Keep it Clean

Your donor email list is clean. Now, keep it that way!

Using email marketing software is one way to do it. This software automates some clean-up tasks, helps you manage bounces and streamlines email marketing processes. But having this software in place doesn’t mean you can forget about list management.

Practicing regular data hygiene procedures can help you keep your list clean going forward. Hendrickson gives three examples of such procedures:

  1. When you receive a donation check, match the name on the check to their donor record to confirm accuracy.
  2. Use a list management system that can distinguish between an individual, a household (couple) and an organization to avoid sending multiple requests.
  3. Update your records with each donor response. If you mail something out to Robert, but the response comes back signed “Bob,” update his salutation to match.

Furthermore, it’s good practice to ask contacts to update their profiles periodically—either through their online profile, if available, or by filling out information cards sent through the mail. That way, most of your records will remain up-to-date with the most accurate contact information.

Finally, continue to monitor your list metrics and look for signs that it’s time to clean up again.

“It’s definitely time to perform list cleanup when you have a high number of bounces and spam complaints, or notice a drop-off in open rates or engagement with your emails,” Flint says. “A rule of thumb is to take a look at your bounces at the end of each quarter: this is a great time to clean up, wrap up and create a fresh start for the new quarter.”


Donor email list cleanup is a practice every fundraiser serious about optimizing campaigns should be doing. By monitoring list metrics, practicing good data hygiene and segmenting donors according to their interests, you are better able to send the right message to the right donors.

According to Hendrickson, “average revenue per donor… should increase simply because the number of invalid donor records decreases.” But by following these tips, you can expect to see campaign improvements at every level.

April 1, 2014 by 

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