Back Away From That Spreadsheet: Why Excel Isn't a Donor Database

Quick, easy, and you already have it—Excel seems like a great fit to manage your donor data.  But just back away from that spreadsheet – there are a lot of reasons why it’s not a good idea.  

Every nonprofit needs to keep track of donors and gifts.  Many of the small nonprofits I’ve worked with started out using Excel.  It seems like a good idea at the time: you already have a copy of the software, you know how to use it, and it’s quick and easy.  But resist that urge.  Put down that spreadsheet and get a database that is designed to track donations. 

Excel is great with numbers, and can track small groups of prospects or activities.  But it has some critical limitations.  Most notably, Excel stores information in what’s called a “flat file” database.  This means it’s not designed to handle relationships between data, such as when one record (like a donor) needs to link to several other records (like gifts). And it doesn’t provide a wide variety of features that make tracking efficient and less error prone.  What does this mean for you in practice?

  • Similarly, you have to add a new column for every new piece of contact information; even if only one person on your list has three email addresses, you will need three email columns.
  • You cannot easily link pledges to payments, or track “soft credits” such as crediting individuals for corporate matches or gifts made through their family foundations.
  • Tracking relationships is an important aspect of major gifts work, and can help with foundation and corporate fundraising.  Excel is not designed to track relationships between constituents, such as spouses with separate records, members of households, or employment relationships.
  • My personal Fourth Law of Thermodynamics says that databases will turn to piles of mush (to use the technical term) without constant vigilance.  Wherever possible, the database itself should help you with this task.  For instance, it should only allow users to enter real 2-character State codes for U.S. addresses, only allow legitimate fund codes and appeal codes, require that U.S. area codes have three numeric digits, and keep letters out of numeric fields.  Excel does not provide a rich array of tools to maintain data integrity.
  • Excel will not notify you of upcoming tasks, like a tickler to remind you to follow up with a prospect, submit a grant application, or send a birthday card.  Nor will it alert you to move someone to a lifetime giving club when their cumulative donations reach over $X (e.g., $100,000).  It can also be cumbersome to analyze Excel data for complex patterns, such as looking for donors have given for over five years, have a cumulative giving level of over $10,000, and attended more than two of your events.
  • Security, reporting, and ad hoc query options are limited. Anyone who can update your spreadsheet can update everything.  It is easy to hit the wrong key and accidentally delete or change data.  If you don’t catch an error right away, you better have a good, recent backup on hand. 
  • Finally, if your fundraising program is successful, your spreadsheet can grow impractically large.  Spreadsheets with thousands and thousands of records become hard to view, print, or manipulate.

I have seen clever people develop workarounds for many of these issues. But they were often complex and not something a casual user could do. An enormous, complex spreadsheets that is so delicate that only one staff member can touch it doesn’t provide the infrastructure an organization needs for successful fundraising.

Your donor database should be your institutional memory.  It should make it easy for you to look up donors, view giving histories, understand relationships, and analyze trends.  It should help your fundraisers work more effectively.  It should be an aid, not a chore.

I recently saw a webinar advertised by a database vendor with the marketing tagline, “Friends don’t let friends use Excel to manage fundraising campaigns.”  I agree.  Excel is a great tool, but it is not a donor database. 







Custom Database

We need a custom database to track the services offered. And three different work-at-home employees have to enter info. Do you have any solutions for that are not donor managment?  

Re:Custom Database

You might look into the Case Management Systems:

And there's Salesforce:

If neither of these seem quite right, you might want to talk to a consultant, but one think that you might think about is whether your system actually needs to be customized. There are likely many systems out there that are flexible enough to be adapted to your needs. Good luck!



 baudb db is as easy to use

 baudb db is as easy to use as a spreadsheet and it is a REAL database. It uses formulas to automate data and utilizes Excel for pre-formatted document and report templates. It's

What to do..

 When your small non-profit refuses to purchase you even the cheapest donor anagement software. I know excel isnt what I need, but I have been told flat 'no' about spending anything on donor management software multiple times. What to do in this situation? I dont blame them, we are small and have a 100% donation to projects promise. But, now how do I deal with donors? 

Re: What to do...

That's a tough situation. Showing them this article is a start, but likely cost is a big factor. If there's any hope, it's in making an argument about return on investment. If you can show them it will pay for itself, then your organization might go for it. I wish I had an easy answer. Good luck to you. 

 OK so I don't see a

 OK so I don't see a solution?? 

Re: Solution?

Good point. The solution is investing in a donor management system. Check out our Consumers Guide to Donor Management Systems:


Tu información es valiosa, pero tu argumento esta basado en la estructura de una BASE DE DATOS, sin embargo creo que lo primero que se tendria que revisar es la definición propia de la base de datos; y apartir de esta, podemos decir si excel no es o si es una base de datos

Excel no es considerado una

Excel no es considerado una base de datos, sino mas una hoja de cálculo, lo que le llaman 'spreadsheet' en inglés. El programa que si es considerado una base de datos es Access.