A few months ago I wrote a post on the topic of whether nonprofits should delete old donor records. The same topic came up recently on the APRA's listserve, PRSPCT-L. The original question:

My organization is working on a data retention policy and wondering if others have insights to share. There seems to be a feeling we should remove any records that have not had an action in 7 years. I’m a bit worried by this. Does this make sense to others?

Here is a compilation of the responses:

I did my graduate work in archives and records management. It will depend on local laws, your storage needs, and your relationship to past customers. Basically, if there are no laws in Canada about what kinds of records you have to keep for a certain amount of time, then you are good there. Storage needs can be assessed internally. – good questions to consider – “How much space does a record take up?”, “How much space do you you have/need/can get?”, “How much space do our backups take up?”, “How many new records do we amass per year?”, “How many records would we lose if we implemented a 7 year schedule?”. As far as your relationship to customers – do you need to reference past records? How many people in your database have gone off the grid for 7+ years and then come back? There is also a potential 3rd option outside of deleting forever or inactivating and forgetting, which would be to implement a policy of deletion, but before your annual purge make a long-term backup copy of the entire database so that if you were ever in a pinch and really needed a deleted record you could access the backups and get at the information. The only potential issue here is then you need to consider an additional record as part of the retention schedule, though if this were also 7 years, you would conceivably be able to access records of people who had been inactive for up to 14 years. It would just be harder to get at the ones that are over 7 years old.

I would consider any data valuable when it can be utilized for predictive analytics or to build a case for trends. Do you know what the issues are that would prompt their wanting to do away with historical records?

I’d be very hesitant to remove a record; maybe they could be marked as inactive or something similar? Is data-storage limits the concern?
If it’s a record with no financial giving and no actions, is there another reason that it is in the database? I have removed records from databases before that had no financial giving, no actions, no alumni status—no clear reason why they were entered in the first place. (I’ve worked in institutions in the past that have decided to just enter everyone in a wealthy neighborhood or every local doctor, etc., in the database—that’s just taking up space.)

My first reaction is not positive.
1) What are the criteria for removal? Not giving? Not wanting mail?
Is it a criteria which is temporary – “they’ve not given to us ever” doesn’t mean they may not wish they had, and upon decease urge gifts “in their memory” to your organization. Or their relatives may wish to honor them in some way.

2) What are you going to do with those records?
Are you going to shelve them in another database – for review ?

I agree with colleagues who've advised not to delete records, and I have a cautionary tale to reinforce that. Many, many years ago, an administrator here apparently made a similar decision to delete an entire group of records from the database. Fast forward to a couple of years ago, and we're forwarded a press release of a $5M gift to an out-of-state university, in which it says the donor is an alumnus of our university (the donor wasn't an alum of the university that got the gift, but it was in his home community). We can't find the alumnus in our alumni and donor database, and the hunt to answer the question of 'why didn't we know about this guy' leads to the discovery that the alum's record was deleted in that group years ago and that there are many other records we need to recover, as well. We've since tried to contact the alum and explain why he hadn't heard from us in 30 years, but, no surprise, he's been somewhat difficult to engage. For whatever reason that administrator many years ago made that decision, we'd never make the same one today. As others have said, data storage is cheap and reporting systems should allow you to deal with excluding individuals from mailings or solicitations if they've been inactive for a period of time, but if individuals aren't in the database, they're not being included in screenings for updated addresses, employment info, wealth events, etc., so removing records is a sure way to lose individuals who could be a donor in the future.

We never remove records, but we continually update the coding of records (e.g., deceased; does not want to be contacted; do not email; etc.)

Rather than deleting the records you may want to consider coding those who have not had any action in 7 years as inactive or some other terminology that has meaning to your organization.

I would hate for you to delete those records and lose all that data and institutional knowledge that you have been collecting along the way.

You should not remove records, especially if there is any record of contact or giving in them, even if it is really old. You could mark them inactive, but some databases don’t show inactive records when you do a regular lookup, which could lead to duplicate creation. The other problem with marking them inactive, is that sometimes they make contact or give a gift, but someone forgets to remove the inactive code and then they are excluded from queries and mailings, etc.

I suggest managing them by implementing some way to exclude them from mailings, etc. (e.g., no contact or gifts in the last 7 years).   

I’d be very hesitant to remove a record; maybe they could be marked as inactive or something similar? Are data-storage limits the concern?

In this day and age, storage is cheap and data is one of your most valuable tools. No sense in removing records....