The Importance of Donor Files

The Importance of Donor Files

I just got back from Columbus, Ohio, the site of this year’s Land Trust Alliance’s Midwest Land Conservation Conference. Meeting and working with practitioners and Board members from the twelve states represented there inspired me to pick this blog up again. As a relative newcomer to full-time professional consulting, I had gotten seriously overwhelmed with work in February and early March, and I dropped posting on the blog while I sorted things out.

In the major donor solicitation session that I led, I asked the group at one point for a show of hands if your organization maintains donor files. I was expecting a lot more hands in the air than I actually got.

It appears that I cannot stress this point enough – You need files on everyone who gives you stuff (money, in-kind services, land, stock, jewelry – anything) as a gift or grant. Who should we have files for? Everyone! What should go into the files? Everything!

In my career, I have worked in three different state offices for The Nature Conservancy, and one office for Sand County Foundation. In each case, I had significant responsibility for raising money and coming quickly up to speed on the donor base was important. In each case, the donor files became my daily reading assignment.

Land Trust work is “in perpetuity”; none of us will make it that long, so what’s in our head will not be good enough. Fundraising is about building relationships between the donor and the organization. Donor files are the vehicle for chronicling that relationship. Information needs to be written down, notes and thoughts captured, so that those who follow can come quickly up to speed in our wake. A reader should be able to pick up the file and fully understand the status of that relationship at any given moment in time.

Should I have a file on every single member? Yes, though in practice, there’s a useful shortcut for members who would otherwise have very thin or even single paper files. Have a file folder in the front of each alphabetic letter in your cabinet marked with that letter (A, B, C….). File all your single sheet member files together in alpha order in that folder until you have enough of a critical mass of paper for a particular member to justify moving their record out into a separate file.

What goes into the file? Copies of everything the members send to you (checks, notes, letters, email, and so on). You don’t need to file everything you send to them, but certainly include anything you do or write personally for them, such as a personal thank you card. If you write a note to the member on the cover of the annual report, make a copy of the cover and file that.

For more information, I’ve written about donor filing before. You can find that essay here. If you have tips and/or tricks you have used, please let me know at



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