Improving Relationships and Reducing Human Error

Keeping Your Donor Database Running Smoothly

by Jennifer Olson

Organizations are in a constant search for technology to help organize fundraising efforts and provide reliable information. Computers are certainly more capable and helpful tools to accomplishing this feat than they were ten years ago, and some nonprofits are quite happy with their data management systems. But, more often than not, organizations have failed to reach the technological "promised land," deriving little benefit from their database.

The best nonprofit database systems are painless to use and effective in maintaining information, assisting the organization in its ultimate goal. This goal is NOT to gather as much data as possible on its constituents, donors and volunteers, but to improve the relationships established with these contacts and to continually record progress within these relationships. Thus, the database is really integral to a relationship tracking system.

Even the best systems are only as good as the data they contain. This leads us to the true nature of nearly all problems with database systems: human error. Those who use and maintain the database fall into simple – and avoidable – traps when it comes to keeping the system running smoothly. The most common mistakes, and tips on how to improve the day-to-day management of the system, are outlined below.

1. Living for today.

Many organizations do not sit down and systematically assess the short-, mid- and long-term needs in a donor database system. We work hard to find something that will fix our problems today, without active thought to system demands and how things need to work down the road.

The secret here is to plan ahead. Make sure you have a system that can accommodate the projected needs of the organization’s future.

2. Being penny wise and pound foolish.

We take the cheap way out, or at least what initially has the least impact on the expense side of our budget. OR, we over purchase software and under commit to training, system use and maintenance. In other words, decisions are driven by money (and staff time) rather than by need.

While it is important to consider the budget of your organization, it is more important to consider the scale of your needs. For instance, if you do not have in-house technology support, purchasing a complex database system is likely to result in lack of use after just a few months (workers are untrained and thus unable to use the system). The best method for selecting a system is to identify needs, find a system that fits and then determine how to make this work within your budget.

3. Believing we can “Just dump it in!”

It is easy to get enthusiastic about acquiring a great piece of software, believing that just putting in the information will create a perfectly-working system. The mantra becomes: get donor information in the system first, work out the kinks later. Unfortunately, this can be a ticket to disaster.

Keeping it simple (KISS, as they say) goes a long way in making the transition to a new database system a smooth one. Determine the information that you want and need, then create a template for how this information must be recorded. These two simple steps will keep errors to a minimum.

4. Subscribing to a “learn as you go” philosophy.

It is a common belief that we don’t have the time or money to send workers to training. We often rely on entry-level staff and volunteers to “learn as they go.” The biggest problem here is that workers tend to learn only enough to get the immediate job done, and not always in the right way! No cumulative skills or knowledge are built that provide effective and accurate data additions and manipulations, or allow us to pull data in a form that is meaningful.

Another common scenario is this: Only one person in the organization has been trained to use a complex system effectively, creating a bottleneck and potentially a crisis when that person leaves. And there usually is no plan for employee succession.

The solution lies in training, cross training and on-going training. When your organization commits to a “system,” realize that this commitment goes far beyond acquiring a piece of software. Rather, the system includes the software AND its users, not to mention the policies and plans that govern and maintain use of the software (more on these later). Every part of the system must be well functioning for the system to be an effective tool.

5. Ignoring the age-old law that garbage in = garbage out.

Unfortunately, good information can become as useless as garbage when improperly managed. To illustrate, try this little exercise: In how many ways can you write an address for a mailing? While 101 E. Main St. and 101 East Main Street and 101 E. Main Street and 101 East Main and 101 E. Main and 101 E Main may be all the same to the postal delivery person, they aren’t all the same to your database. Every day, organizations spend – literally – thousands of dollars cleaning up their 101 E. Main Street problems after years of inconsistent data entry and maintenance.

Be sure to develop a consistent method for data entry and WRITE IT DOWN! This provides the basis of great training for new database users, and creates a consistent template for the rest of your workers.

6. Failing to set policies and procedures specific to the database.

With no formal parameters, workers use their best judgment to add donor and gift information into a system. What is intuitive to one may be illogical to and unidentifiable to another. Without consistency of data entry, your mailings, reports and ability to produce statistical information become nightmares.

As mentioned before, keeping things simple may be the most important consideration in database design and use, so KISS when developing your policies and procedures. Next, talk about how you would like information collected and recorded, considering how this already is being done – formally and informally – throughout the organization. And consider your database policies and procedures to be dynamic, changed and added to as the system matures.

7. Failing to create a system with built-in checks and balances.

We’re all human and mistakes happen, even with the greatest of preparation and planning.

Caught early, mistakes are easy to fix and will not endanger your organization’s records. To maintain data integrity, schedule monthly checks and reviews to cull duplicates, modify personal information, reclassify active vs. inactive patrons, etc. Include your procedures for conducting these reviews in a comprehensive maintenance plan (see below).

8. Approaching database management as something that “will take care of itself.”

After a period of time, a sizable portion of the information collected in any database is obsolete or defunct, making very difficult your work to manage relationships with legitimate current contacts. Organizations often develop “work arounds” to identify obsolete records, using bold words like “DECEASED,” “DEFUNCT” or “DO NOT MAIL” within the database address fields (so printed labels may be manually scanned and pulled as part of the mailing process).

Although the intention to not completely delete records may be sound, a solid data integrity and maintenance plan can better address this and similar issues. The system’s data integrity and maintenance plan should include:

- Annual review of policies and procedures, as well as review and editing of actual database records.

- Commitment of a person to “own” the database and be responsible for its quality control. This person ensures that data entry procedures are documented and followed, runs periodic audit reports to identify problems, conducts monthly checks (as mentioned above). This person also is responsible for making sure that existing workers are trained on new features and procedures, and that those new to the database system are thoroughly oriented with procedures before they start entering data.

- Creation of standards for decreasing the size of the active database to improve mailing lists, reports and database processing speeds. A typical standard may be that if you have not heard from or received a donation from a constituent in ten years, the donor record is considered and noted as inactive. This standard ensures that you continue to have access to old information if the donor chooses to re-engage with your organization, but YOU can choose when to use this information and not have it otherwise “in the way.”

A budget to meet ongoing hardware and software upgrades, annual software maintenance fees, and ongoing training from the vendor (including attendance at annual User Group conferences).

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