I was recently contacted by the vendor behind a new cloud-based donor management system with this question:

We have noticed that our clients have become much more conscious about archiving/deleting old donor/prospect records because our pricing model is based on the number of records.  After talking with some clients, it seems opinions vary wildly regarding this subject. For example, one nonprofit archives records every year based on past giving or when someone last interacted with them.  But an animal welfare group never archives records because the elderly women with 15 cats who gave $20 ten years ago may leave them her entire estate.

I just wanted to see if you had any insight you could offer regarding this subject.

My response:

I am opposed to deleting donor records. While there are ways around it, that typically ends your ability to communicate with the donor, invite them to events, re-engage them, steward them, or understand why a subsequent gift or bequest came from them. I’ve heard enough tales of bequests from one-time or small donors to believe that they’re real. For my clients with on-premise systems, I see no justification for deleting donors; disk space is cheap. If inactive donors clutter your search results, code them so they don’t appear in searches. But don’t delete them.

This doesn’t mean a nonprofit should send their glossy annual report or magazine to every $5 donor. Organizations need to have a policy about what level of donation gets a particular level of stewardship. You should be able to mark records as inactive after a set time period and stop sending them anything. That’s not the same as deleting them.

On the other hand, many nonprofits have bought lists, or added prospects to their database because they saw them listed on another nonprofit’s honor roll or read about them in the paper, or a board member said, "so and so has money". I have no quarrel with deleting nonresponsive “prospects” or constituents with no tangible connection to the organization.

I encouraged the vendor to find a pricing model that won’t encourage this behavior, such as pricing based on concurrent logins, number of modules, number of emails sent, and/or online transactions.  All of these approaches have their downsides, of course, but they don't encourage data loss.

What do you think?  Is there a justification for deleting donor records?