My Favorite Donor Filing System

My Favorite Donor Filing System

I ran into yet another land trust the other day that does not keep donor files (paper files). This is a HUGE mistake, and if you’re a land trust in this position, one that you will want to correct right away.


Because perpetuity is a long time – longer than you’re going to be around. Those who follow you are going to want to pick up right where you left off – with easement landowners, with foundation grant officers, and – yes – even with your individual donors.

At the very least, your donor files should include a record of every written interaction the organization has with each donor. This specifically includes email, form letters, and thank you cards, but most especially includes copies of everything they send to you. I usually include copies of checks they write as well.

Do you need to have a donor file for every member? NO, but establish and follow a simple trigger policy so it doesn’t become arbitrary. For example, a threshold contribution amount, say a single gift of $100 or more, might be the signal to create a donor file. My preferred trigger is correspondence from the member. As soon as they send you an email, letter, note, or card, set up a donor file and start tracking the relationship.

Here are some other ideas that I like:

  • Color code your donor files. Choose a color that is not used anywhere else in your office. The easier it is to identify donor files, the more likely it is that they will return to the file cabinet and stay organized.
  • Color code research information. Staple it together in a contained packet and always have it filed in the front of the donor file.
  • Set up a cross-reference system. To avoid copying a letter from Tom Miller to both the Miller, Tom file and the XYZ Investments file, choose one, and file a dummy in the other place. In general, file individual donor information with the donor name, and file grant officer information with the corporate/foundation name.
  • Include a photo. On field trips and at special events, take a camera and snap photos of as many donor/members as you can. In the donor files include a (one) photo of the donor in their file. Clip it to the inside front cover of the file for easy reference.
  • Create two files for corporations and foundations – the second should be a different color. Into this second file, throw the annual reports, institutional brochures, and/or any information that will be updated over time. When you get the new material, replace the older version in the file.


Over time, two additions to the files will save time for those renewing the files. First, create a data sheet with all known addresses and other contact information, birth date(s), giving history, typical renewal month, and any special interests or connections with the organization. Second, summarize a basic chronology with the high points of the relationship. Both of these documents will be replaced by new information over time, so an annual review would be appropriate and useful.

If all this seems daunting, and it’s hard to get started, start with your Board members. Set up a file for each one, copy and file all correspondence you may have stored in your computer over time, and make copies of everything they may have sent to you. Write a paragraph detailing what you know about their financial position, gifts to the organization, and specific interests. Include photos if you have them, and find a place in the file cabinet. Voila! You have a start.

There is some debate about whether electronic filing is an appropriate substitute for paper files. Electronic files, for those who are religious about scanning and have a good system for finding things, have some strong advantages. That they can be searched quickly is a great benefit. They also take up less room and use less paper resources. Even more importantly, they are easily and efficiently backed up and stored off-site – a huge advantage in a disaster.

But my answer is still NO, electronic filing is not an acceptable substitute. Call me old-fashioned, but I get a sense of the donor relationship from the “heft” of the file, the dog-eared pages, the notes scribbled by various readers over time, and the nature of the donor’s paper or cards that I just don’t get from the computer screen. Use electronic filing as a redundant system – for searches and backups – but keep all the cards and paper they send you in a file cabinet all the same.

What do you keep in your donor file cabinet? Do you have systems that work for you that I can share with others? As always, your comments, responses, and questions are welcomed here and by email at David (at) DevelopmentForConservation (dot) com.



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