To subscribe to the monthly C&E email newsletter and event announcements click here.

One of the most important tasks in the beginning of a campaign is gathering potential donor lists and building a donor database for fundraising and communications. It is a time consuming task that campaigns usually piece together as they go along.

Doing solid research on which lists to gather and then gathering biographical information on the individuals in the lists are very important steps. This should be one of the campaign’s first goals. Once the lists are gathered, they should be databased for future editing and for use in fundraising and communications.

Since my firm’s focus is U.S. congressional open-seat or challenger campaigns, I will offer some advice on building a donor database, using a congressional campaign as an example.

Step 1: Gather Lists of Potential Donors

Potential donor lists are the foundation of the fundraising effort, period. These lists can mean the success or failure of your entire effort. Gathering the lists and putting them into usable formats at one time saves time and money. The so-called “circle of friends” is the most important list to put together. Start here, because this is a time consuming effort. The candidate must sit down and write all the names of his or her family, friends and colleagues who could potentially contribute.

Then the candidate or staff gets the info into an Excel file. If you’re new to this, be sure to include these key fields in your file: first and last name, title, organization, employer, occupation, address, state, zip, phone, e-mail and fax number. Also, include fields for other notes and biographical info. And be sure to add fields for donor history information and the ask amount to contribute or raise.

A second source of donor lists is from previous statewide and local campaigns. Lists can be gathered by simply asking elected officials and previous candidates for them. In some cases, state and local candidates have lists that are public.

When running as a congressional candidate, the campaign should gather donor lists of candidates who ran for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, etc. Also include candidates who ran for state Senate, state representative, mayor, county office and lower. Lists from certain interest groups are useful too, like Labor Unions, the Sierra Club or the Humane Society.

Once the campaign has gathered all the lists, it should try to determine whether it is complete. By complete, our firm likes to feel confident that our lists include roughly 80 percent to 90 percent of potential donors in the state.

The third source of donor lists can come from fundraising firms themselves. My firm, for example, has more than 300,000 high-dollar, low-dollar and “netizen” national Democratic donors available from all 50 states.

Step 2: Database The Potential Donor Lists and Add Contact Information

There is really only one way to database lists and do it right the first time. A campaign should hire a professional database firm, which offers an excellent new databasing service. The databasing of the lists is key. First, all the lists are named using the last name of the individual or group of the list—for example, if the list comes from “Smith for Governor,” the list would be named “Smith” so that when the call sheets are printed with the donor histories, the candidate would know what amount the donor gave that candidate. Then all the lists are combined into one master list. The next step is to take out the duplication, being careful to retain the donor history when condensing duplicate entries. Then home, business and cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses need to be added.

Step 3: Managing The Donor Database

Purchasing software to manage the newly built donor database is a very important decision. Nathaniel Pearlman of NGP Software offers a good software product for managing potential donors for U.S. congressional Democratic campaigns. I saw the software give a major boost to Rep. Jerry McNerney in 2006, in both a hotly contested Democratic primary and against incumbent Republican Rep. Richard Pombo. I was the general and fundraising consultant for McNerney’s 2006 campaign and we needed a product to manage thousands of potential Democratic donors and the new “netizen” donor community. The software let us easily make updated call sheets, mail information, track contributions, prepare and file FEC reports, and target potential donors with e-communications.

The McNerney 2006 campaign had the best outreach to the “netizen” community because the campaign was able to effectively manage and communicate with potential Democratic donors thanks to its donor database.

Step 4: Researching Donors

The next step is to gather as much biographical information about a potential donor as possible. When the candidate knows the audience, it helps build a relationship faster and makes the candidate a better seller. Biographical donor research is a time consuming process but it pays off in the end.

Having a professional donor call sheet is very important. All professional fundraising firms have a donor call sheet ready for candidate calling. Have your database firm print all the donors onto call sheets in order of priorities. Before the donor call sheets are printed, the potential donors are targeted in order. Since the donor history information is available, print that onto the call sheet as well. Why is targeting and having the contribution history of a donor important? The answer is easy. First, the campaign can target the “circle of friends,” followed by wealthy donors, individual donors who have given multiple high-dollar contributions, and so on.

Step 5: Communicate and Fundraise

Now that the potential donor database has been built, researched and targeted, the campaign and candidate can start communicating with potential donors through phone calls, direct mail, e-mails and text messages. And the candidate will start calling potential donors with the confidence of knowing his or her potential donors are the most likely donors for the campaign.

Kenneth S. Christensen is a partner at Christensen & Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C.–based Democratic national fundraising and political consulting firm.