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Ask Evolve: Why is my mailing list so messed up?

February 18, 2020

This blog post was originally published by Giving Tree Associates.

When it comes to database management, one of the most frequently asked questions from our clients is “why is my mailing list so messed up?” In particular, we find many nonprofits use all kinds of workarounds to enter information for various family structures. To give you a quick rundown, we called in our go-to data expert, Debbie McCann* from W4Sight.

Entering names in your CRM so that your mailing lists come out perfectly every time can be a challenge, especially when you have couples on your list who don't fit the Emily Post 1950s-era examples. In modern life, it's common to have couples with different last names, couples where either partner (or both) have important titles (like "Dr."), and same-sex couples.

Luckily, most nonprofit CRMs are prepared to handle these situations. But you may find that the necessary fields are ignored (or the overall functionality is misunderstood) until it is time to run a mailing list! We recommend following a few important guidelines for entering and maintaining your data, and you’ll be well on your way to generating better lists.  

  1. One constituent record = one person. This is the most important rule of all. No matter what the situation is with the couple's names, the name fields on the record should ONLY have a single individual's information in them. That goes for ALL the fields: Title/Prefix, First Name, Middle Name/Initial, Last Name, and Suffix. A person’s information can be as simple as Ms. Susan Jones, or as complicated as Dr. Michael B. Ashton-Williams, Jr. But one record = one person.
  2. Common mistakes include entering "Jane and Michael" in the first name field, and "Mr. and Mrs." in the Title/Prefix field. We’re guessing you could find a few of these in your system.
  3. In most (but not all) CRMs, the spouse name goes in a specific field/fields designated for the constituent's spouse. The exact screen label for the spouse name fields may differ from system to system, but the idea is the same: It's entirely separate from the main constituent's name fields, and there is special functionality around the spouse’s name fields to make sure the mailing labels come out correctly.
  4. Let your CRM's special fields for Addressee/Envelope Label and Salutation do the work when you are ready to generate a mailing or other list. These are additional fields that use the data entered in the specific constituent and spouse biographical fields that are designed to be used on address labels or inside the letter after "Dear". These work a little differently in each CRM, but the idea is the same.

So, even if you’re following these guidelines, what about those frustrated online donors? On your online donation form, specifically ask for the spouse’s name AND how the donor would like to be recognizedIf donors don’t have another place to put this information, they will try to squeeze it into the only fields available.   

Not sure how to achieve all this? Check out our freebie for detailed information on how to implement these suggestions using the most commonly used nonprofit databases.

One last suggestion: remember that CONSISTENCY is also a critical feature in your database that allows you to get big tasks done quickly and easily. Whatever exact rules and guidelines your organization follows, take care to be consistent in your data management so you don't end up with an annual report list that includes all different policies.

If your data is already all over the place, remember that for most systems, there are ways to reset the Addressee and Salutation fields according to a specific policy, without editing hundreds or thousands of records manually. Need help developing and executing policies that are right for the culture of your org?  Just ask us!

*Debbie McCann is a co-founder of W4Sight LLC, a company that provides management and technology consulting services to the nonprofit community. ​W4Sight strives to provide pragmatic solutions that enable nonprofits to expand capacity and increase efficiency in support of their mission. Debbie can be reached at