Let's Raise Some Money
Insights from Karen Climer about fundraising and nonprofit organizations

Your Database Is A Gold Mine – Treat It That Way

January 20th, 2014 by Karen Climer

If you have worked at more than one nonprofit, you have probably encountered a database that looks worse than Florida after a hurricane.  Records are incomplete or inaccurate, if you are lucky.  In many cases, they are non-existent.  It takes a full-day to pull a simple mailing list because the database is so bad.

Donor databases are one of the things I excel at, so I get a lot of calls about this.  I’ve seen the best and the worst when it comes to the condition of the database.

There are two things that organizations with great databases do that organizations with useless databases don’t do.  The good news is that both of these are feasible for any organization.

The first thing you need to do is document procedures as to how the database is used.  Use consistent definitions so everyone is doing it the same way.  For example, let’s say you have a lawn maintenance service come to your office once a week to mow the grass for free.  How do you document this?  The owner of the lawn maintenance company probably considers this a donation.  The IRS considers him to be a volunteer, not a donor.  If you do decide that he is a donor, what level of service does someone need to donate before they cross the threshold from volunteer to donor?  In other words, is your volunteer receptionist recorded as a donor?  This might seem like a silly discussion, but I have seen numerous databases in disarray because no one has thought this through.  Instead, they sit around and complain that, “Our database is useless.  I don’t trust any of the information.”

Another example is fund or campaign codes.  If you code something as RDN13, that might make perfect sense to you, but ten years from now, no one will remember what RDN means.

I’ve been there, so I know what happens.  The organization has a grand plan to develop a plan and document everything, but when it comes down to actually gathering the interested parties and having these discussion, there are more interesting things to do.  Everyone quickly finds something more important thing to do. (“I’ve been meaning to reorganize the storage closet.  Yes, the same storage closet I had to reorganize last week, which caused me to miss the budget workshop.”)  No one considers the database important until they can’t get information from it.

Make time to have these discussions.  If you do it right, you will only have to have the discussion one time.  It’s not like a budget that you have to do every year.  This is a discussion that you have once, and won’t need to have again unless you get a new database or have a major change such as merging with another organization.

The second thing you need is ONE person who owns the database.  This needs to be a person who loves databases.  That person is the only person who has administrator rights.  I know the CEO and the development director feel like they should be administrators as well.  After all, they are higher on the totem pole than the database administrator.  This is making organizational decisions based on egos instead of what is sound business practice.  If you want clean, useful data, you need one database administrator.

Those two things alone will make a huge difference in the usefulness of your database.  I know that neither of these is particularly fun, but the benefit of having the information in a usable format when it is necessary far outweighs the chore of maintaining the database.

Posted in Database

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