How to Keep Donor Addresses Updated with NCOA Screening

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Do you get a lot of mail returned when you send out a solicitation or cultivation mailing? If you aren’t doing regular NCOA (National Change of Address) screening, then you’re missing an important and inexpensive data hygiene tool. NCOA helps you to update addresses for people who have moved so you can keep in touch with your donors.

NCOA is a service offered by both the United States and Canadian postal services.  Data vendors contract with the postal service for access to the NCOA database and resell that information to customers like nonprofit organizations and businesses who send bulk mail. If you send bulk mail through the US Postal Service, you are required to do a NCOA screening at least every 95 days.

What are the limitations of NCOA?

NCOA is self-reported, so if your donor doesn’t report their move, that information will not be in the NCOA database. US NCOA data is available for a maximum of four years and the Canadian NCOA service reaches back four years. If you have very old addresses, you may need to do additional manual research or purchase information from a data vendor.

Where do I start?

If your organization has never done a NCOA screening, you’ll want to screen as many addresses as possible, excluding those to whom you will not send mail (e.g. deceased people or very long-lapsed donors).  This is a great project to do in advance of a large mailing – just make sure you give yourself time to update your database with new addresses before you need to pull your mailing list.

NCOA in the United States is available in two formats: 18-month and 48-month.  The 18-month database contains move updates from the last year and a half, whereas the 48-month goes back four years. For Canadian addresses, there is only one database.

For US addresses, start with the 48-month.  After you’ve done one screening, if you are screening on a regular basis (at least annually, and every 95 days if you use a bulk mail permit), you can use the 18-month database.

You have a few options for doing a NCOA screening:

1.     Work with a data quality vendor

There are numerous vendors that resell both US and Canadian NCOA data. This will often be your least expensive option and offers you the greatest level of control of your data. It’s also more time consuming than the other options, as you must identify a good vendor, pull your own data, and import your own results.

2.     Work with your mailing vendor

Most mailing vendors offer NCOA as an add-on service. When you provide them your mailing list, they’ll NCOA screen it and send your mail to a cleaned and updated list. This is a great option, as long as you also receive the NCOA results and import them to your database.

3.     Work with your database vendor
Some donor database vendors offer NCOA screening as an add-on service. This is generally more expensive than working with a stand-alone vendor but can be a valuable time saver if your vendor pulls your data, screens it, and updates your database for you. This can also be helpful if you don’t currently have a data manager on your team who can readily perform database imports. (Read here for more on hiring an awesome data manager.)

What’s the process?

1.     Pull a list of your donors who have mailing addresses on record and provide the list to your NCOA vendor.  If you are working with your database vendor, they will likely do this for you.  If you are working with your mailing vendor, they will screen your mailing list before sending it out.  If you work with your mailing vendor, make sure that you get a copy of their correction file so you can make updates to your database.

2.     Receive results and review them. Your NCOA results will come with match codes that will enable you to determine the accuracy of the results. You may need to do manual research to verify fuzzy matches and find people who have moved with no forwarding address. If your volume of “lost” constituents (those with no mailing address on file) is high enough,  you may consider purchasing an additional data append to find new addresses.

3.     Update your database with corrected addresses.  You may do this manually, though it’s usually much less time-consuming and far more accurate to do this using your database’s import tool.

Add on CASS Screening

While you are doing your NCOA screening, you will have the option to add on a CASS screening for very little money. CASS stands for Coding Accuracy Support System.  CASS verifies that an address is valid and mailable.  This makes your mailings more deliverable, cutting down on returned mail. An important note on CASS is that it doesn’t verify that a particular person is at a particular address – just that it is a valid postal address.

NCOA and CASS screenings are low cost, require a small amount of effort, and will yield you better mailing results. It’s well worth the investment in time and money to stay in touch with your donors.


To learn more about keeping  your data clean, please join us for Data Hygiene: Clean Up Your Database and Keep It Clean, from Fundraising Nerd’s Make Your Donor Data Work webinar series.

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