I’ve been thinking a lot about databases recently. During the past two years, I’ve worked in dozens of databases, helped clients move away from multiple spreadsheets to one cohesive system, moved clients into their first database system, converted clients from one system to another and helped others restructure their systems to be more usable and efficient.
As nonprofit professionals, we all know that data is at the heart of what we do. It’s the data that helps us create our fundraising plan and goals, tells us a donor’s interests, giving history and funding priorities so that we may make an appropriate ask, and at a very basic level, tracks the contact information that allows us to communicate with our constituents.
So, why does our data get so messy? Why are we missing so much valuable information? And how can we proactively put an infrastructure in place that prevents this from happening and protects the sanctity of our data? The answer is simple and two-fold.
1. Ensure staff members understand the importance of the data and how it will be used to make strategic organizational decisions.
Have you ever been asked to do something and not really understood why? Maybe you didn’t ask for an explanation or maybe you asked and weren’t really given a reason, or even worse, met with the all dreaded “because I said so”. I bet you reluctantly followed suit. Maybe you took every shortcut in the book just to get the task done quickly. We’re all guilty of asking people to do things without providing the reasoning behind the task or explaining how the information will be used. If we could just take a step back and explain the bigger picture, I bet we would find that the information we request comes back to us in a more usable, organized way.
I find there are two important topics to be covered in training staff members on a database system. The first is the obvious; we must teach the steps that accomplish a task. This is executional in nature. How do I add a new record, update a record, record a gift, etc.
The second, and arguably more important conversation is around why. Why do we track this information? How will this information be used? Why is it important to record as much information as possible?
I find that by explaining the “why” we better position ourselves for success. If I, as the person who enters the data, understand why you need certain information and how it will be used, I’m more likely to dedicate the time and effort to get you what you need in the way that you need it. I can then also begin to anticipate things you may need and to track those as well. By explaining the reasoning, you are engaging me in the process and I, in turn, will engage with the work in a more meaningful way.
2. Create a formalized set of policies and procedures around data entry.
In a perfect world, a database processes and procedures document would be as standard as an employee handbook. Each employee would be given one the day he/she began and expected to read and understand the “rules of the workplace”. I believe anyone who has ever worked in a database would agree with my past statement. The reality is, database processes and procedures are not as common as we may hope, albeit they should be.
What is a database processes and procedures document (DPPD) and why does it matter?
A database processes and procedures document provides guidelines around the types of information entered into a donor database system, how, when and by whom. Think of this as “Your database for dummies”. In addition to broad and overarching guidelines, the document defines how the organization uses the different fields within the database and outlines the steps taken to enter information, providing rules around and examples of normal and one-off situations. It can be used as a training manual or orientation to the database for new staff or a reference for how to treat data in different situations. The DPPD creates expectations around data, explains its importance to the organization as well as outlines a consistent set of rules and processes. In doing so, the DPPD is the first step in helping to ensure the quality and consistency of data.
If you don’t currently have an infrastructure in place to help protect the quality and consistency of your data, I strongly encourage you to create one. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes!
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