In Defense of Paper Filing Systems

In Defense of Paper Filing Systems

Let’s say you’re a relative newcomer to the land trust. You muster your courage and get a meeting, over lunch, with a donor you understand to be a key opinion leader in the organization. Turns out, you learn later, she was a founding director, served 16 years on the board including 6 years as Chair. In 2002, she donated 200 acres as a preserve including nearly a quarter mile of river frontage. She loves birding and only gives once each year, in August, and gets mildly irritated when you send solicitations to her at other times of the year. The land trust is in her will.

Most of that information should be available to you before your meeting. Where will you find it?


Fundraiser’s Almanac: April

  • In Defense of Paper Filing Systems
  • Lapsed Member Letters
  • Donor Screening
  • Spring Appeal


Unfortunately, all too often, the information you need is in the heads of your predecessors, some of whom aren’t on the staff or board any longer. Some of the information is in the database – but the organization changed systems in 2011, and not all the information from the old system translated. The land donation wasn’t even recorded in the old spreadsheet system. That information is in the project files – assuming you think to look there. Her board service is recorded in the board meeting minutes, which go back to the beginning in carefully labeled three-ring binders. A Board Director sent her a handwritten card when he found out about her will, but no one copied the card and the fact was never recorded otherwise. And your predecessor just “remembered” to suppress her name from the solicitation each fall.

Sound familiar? Frankly, I think we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In our zeal to reduce paper and digitize everything, we have made it harder to “know” anything about our donors. I think there should be a place where you can go and relatively quickly learn the key points about a donor and their entire relationship with the organization. I think that place is in a paper file in a file cabinet marked “Donor Records.”

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 important because they chronicle 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. Electronic filing systems are fine unless they are dependent on outdated software and scatter the relevant parts and pieces of the story all over the internet. A reader (like me!) should be able to pick up a file and fully understand the history and status of that relationship at any given moment in time.

This April, take a couple of days to clean up (or create!) your filing system. It’s a job no one likes, but everyone appreciates eventually. So don’t put it in the When-I-Have-Time pile – because you never will. Make it a priority and do it in April.

Start with your board members and former board members. Then work on your top donors. Pretend that no one who knows this person is still around. How can you organize the information in such a way that the relative newcomer in the first paragraph can learn it quickly?

For more information, I’ve written about donor filing before. (See My Favorite Donor Filing System.)


If you have tips and/or tricks you have used, or if you want to rush to the defense of electronic filing systems, please let me know.

If you’ll share, I’ll post all the ideas I am aware of on this blog.



Photo credit: Spring Brook courtesy of Walt Kaesler.

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