Nonprofit Data Migration: It's Time to Be Strategic and Choosy - Heller Consulting

Nonprofit Data Migration: It’s Time to Be Strategic and Choosy

When you’re implementing new technology for your nonprofit, such as a customer relationship management (CRM) system, a critically important step in the process is data migration.

It can be tempting to move every piece of data your organization has ever collected into the new system “just in case” you need it someday. And even though you probably know you should clean your data before a new technology implementation, you might think it would be much easier to just move everything now and vow to clean it up later. (How many times have you said that while moving into a new home and then never quite got around to tidying up later?)

Some nonprofit technology consultants accommodate this approach by offering inexpensive data migration options, such as those that use a script to quickly move data from one or more systems into your new system – often referred to as a “lift and shift” approach.

But many nonprofits are seeing the downsides of moving too much data (and moving bad data) into a new system, and they’re recognizing that a more strategic approach to data migration offers multiple benefits. We’ve also seen the market shift to placing greater emphasis on data certainty, which focuses more on accurate data over volume of data. With this approach, organizations can build more accurate strategies around engaging with their constituents.

Why take a strategic approach to nonprofit data migration?

There was a time when CRM systems were promoted as a “single source of truth” that led to a “360-degree view of your data”. With that perspective, you might think it would follow that you should collect and store as much data as possible in your nonprofit’s new CRM system.

However, that’s not always the most effective approach for modern nonprofits.

CRM systems today are often a core system for many organizations but are just one of multiple software systems in the technology mix. Also, organizations are now collecting more data than ever about their donors, volunteers, and other constituents. These factors are leading more nonprofits to shift away from collecting and storing huge volumes of data in one system to ensuring they have the access they need to clean, accurate, and specific data that truly supports their goals.

Here are a few reasons that this strategic view of data migration might be a better choice for your nonprofit:

  • Lower cost – Thoughtful data migration requires data mapping and testing. So, the more data elements you move into your new system, the longer and more costly the implementation will be. Plus, depending on your new CRM system’s fee structure, you could end up paying a considerable amount for data storage. By cleaning your data and thinking intentionally about what data you move into your new system, you can save valuable dollars for your organization.
  • Better performance – Bogging down your new system with a lot of data that you don’t use on a regular basis can have a negative impact on the system’s performance. For example, running reports might take much longer if the reporting function must sort through excess data to deliver results. Thinking “clean and lean” when you move data into your new system will help to ensure that your system is running optimally.
  • Greater results – Over time, it’s not unusual to have inconsistent, duplicate, and outdated data. By tidying your data before moving it into a new system, you can ensure that your new system is supporting your organization’s goals. For example:
    • You’ll be able to accurately segment your database and target constituents with the right messages, without accidentally sending multiple messages to the same person.
    • Your reports will be more accurate. You’ll be able to dive into data analytics and employ business intelligence approaches using data you can trust.
    • Your entire organization will work more efficiently because the system will be working optimally.

Being selective with data doesn’t necessarily mean throwing it away

The idea of NOT moving all of your data into your new system can seem scary. We’ve seen organizations that have decades of data in their legacy systems. In cases like this, the tug from that old “What if I need it someday?” idea can be strong.

But keep in mind that being thoughtful and selective about which data you move into your new system doesn’t mean you have to throw out all of your old data. In fact, today there are many technology options available to house your older data. They range from simple (such as a spreadsheet or .CSV files) to more complex (such as data warehouses and data lakes).

Also, there are more sophisticated integration options than ever before, some of which allow you to use data without moving it. For example, Salesforce recently announced Genie, which allows you to use data about your constituents from across your entire technology ecosystem without actually copying the data to the system that’s using it.

The bottom line: Remember that being strategic with your data migration doesn’t automatically mean you’re throwing data away. There are ways to hang onto important data without having it clutter your CRM system.

Tips for taking a more strategic approach to data migration for your nonprofit

A thoughtful approach to data migration starts with considering which data gets moved to your new system, and which doesn’t. The right type and volume of data moved into a new system will be different for every nonprofit. However, here are some general ideas to consider:

  • Compliance-related data – Any information that you will need for compliance, such as that needed for regular reporting back to government entities, should be moved into your new system. For financial data, consider migrating the past seven years of data.
  • Data needed for targeted messages – You’ll need data for marketing/fundraising segmentation and list-building, such as donor data, demographic data, and other details about your interactions with constituents. However, keep in mind that data can be so old that it’s no longer a reflection of your organization’s current relationship with a constituent. So, depending on your organization’s needs, you might want to move only two to five years of data into your new system.
  • Program data – Your nonprofit’s programs might require that you have more historical data about engagement with your constituents in certain areas. In this case, it’s important to balance the desire to have lean data with the breadth of your organization’s day-to-day data needs.
  • First-party data – The data you collect directly from your own audience (first-party data) is more valuable than data that you purchase from a third party. It’s your data and it isn’t dependent on some other organization. So, consider placing a higher priority on moving this data into your CRM system, where you can secure it and use it for targeted marketing.

Learn more about strategic data migration for your nonprofit

If you’re considering a move to a new technology system, it’s important to think about your approach to data migration. When it comes down to it, it’s all about using your data wisely.

Here at Heller Consulting, we believe data migration is about more than just moving data from one system to another. It’s about ensuring you’re using your data cost-effectively in a way that helps you truly get the most out of your technology systems and ultimately reach your organization’s goals.

If you’d like to talk about your data migration and technology needs, contact Heller Consulting. Our team is ready to help.

More Nonprofit Resources:

Join the list

Want more nonprofit tech resources delivered to your inbox? Fill out the quick form below!

About the Authors

Jeffrey Appell
Jeffrey began working with nonprofits in 1997. Starting out as an intern at the San Francisco chapter of the Anti-Defamation League he went on to be a Development Associate at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and then at... Read More
Mike Kirkpatrick
Prior to joining Heller Consulting, Mike spent over 20 years in strategic and technical leadership positions in both nonprofit and higher education organizations. Drawing upon years of experience at the Canadian Cancer Society in marketing, online fundraising and digital, he... Read More

Tip Sheet: Nonprofit Data Management


How do you ensure good data at your organization? We have four pro tips.

Download Now

Podcast: The Critical Role of Data


Digital transformation often comes down to data. Hear advice for how you can remake processes to better enhance the constituent experience.

Listen Now