We are thrilled this week to have Joseph Conley back to delve further into the use and misuse of fundraising databases. Thank you Joseph, over to you!
In my last post I discussed important things to consider when deciding what fundraising database your organization should use. This time, I’m going to highlight the top ten mistakes people make when using them (these are not necessarily in order of priority).
1. Not considering your own schedule when implementing:
Implementing a fundraising database is a huge project. Always. Most organizations have an ebb and flow in their workload; make sure to plan for implementation during your slower season. This includes:
- Establishing a reasonable, if not conservative, timeline with the provider.
- Allowing time for your staff to get up to speed, depending upon your staff’s technical ability.
I have never met someone I couldn’t teach to use a system, but some people take longer than others so its crucial that this is taken into account when setting your schedule and to prevent mistakes being made further down the line.
2. Not effectively motivating staff:
Some people thrive on change, sometimes just for changes sake. Others would prefer it if a sci-fi villain froze time, placing it in a fixed state forever. Most people are somewhere in between. But, even the most change-friendly employees may balk at migrating to a new database.
So prepare your staff for this process. Often that means more than just a kick-off party with ice cream (though an ice cream party is never a bad idea!). It’s about being transparent about what it’s going to take to implement, and how long. Tell them how they will be supported to use the new tool and who’s responsibility it will be to teach them. Show them how their day to day work experience will improve as a result of the move and gain their commitment to use it (so that they don’t revert back to using their trusty spreadsheets and post-it notes!).
3. Trying to force a new system into an old workflow:
It is common for organizations to try to figure out how to make the new system work within old workflows and procedures. This can often create more work than starting from scratch. In fact, the limitations of the old workflow might even be the reason why you chose to adopt a new database in the first place!
So use the implementation of the new system as an opportunity to re-evaluate your current workflows and procedures. Are they inefficient? Where do they risk corrupting data? By looking at your internal systems with new eyes can see how you can significantly increase efficiencies and effectiveness. Isn’t that why you got the new database in the first place?
4. Not building a robust policies and procedures guide:
One of your primary responsibilities with any database is making it your database. That means deciding exactly how your organization is going to use it. For example:
- What kind of coding will you use?
- What, specifically, does each code mean?
- When should each code be used?
It is crucial that everyone touching the database is on the same page. If codes aren’t being used the same way, they become worthless. Having everything written into a policies and procedures guide means that everyone is behaving consistently with coding and data entry, so that you are able to ensure that your data is accurate and consistent.
- Not training your staff:
Buying a new database and not training your staff to use it is like buying your child a bike and not teaching them how to ride it. At the end of the day, it’s just kind of mean.
When I started working at my first non-profit, I received no formal database training. My co-workers were great about teaching me the basics and being available for questions but none of them had received formal training, either. When I joined Blackbaud, I was amazed at how many things we had been doing wrong! We had built complicated, time consuming, possibly data-corrupting work-arounds when a simple solution had already been built into the system. We could have saved time and a lot frustration had we been formally trained.
6. Not using your database:
If you never use your database, it is a waste of money. Too often, the database is seen as the exclusive purview of the database administrator and the processing team. As databases become more user friendly, there is no reason why the whole team should be using it.
One of my favorite rules is “there is no reason why the whole team SHOULDN’T be using it”. When interactions with donors aren’t recorded, a huge amount of information is lost. This will hurt you in the long run. The best way to make this happen is through leadership buy-in. If the director of development isn’t using the database, the gift officers won’t either.
7. Not exploring your database:
Once you’ve been properly trained, give yourself permission to start poking and prodding. This doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. But, every now and then, hit a button on a tool bar that you’ve never hit before. Open up a drop down that you’ve never opened. Chances are, there are cool, time saving functions that you didn’t know were there.
And don’t worry, I’ve never seen a database with self-destruct button.
8. Undervaluing the data entry team (part 1):
It is amazing to me how often I get asked “how can we overcome the fact that we don’t trust our data entry.”
Bad data entry makes a database worse than worthless; it makes it dangerous. It results in all your analysis being suspect and possibly putting your donor relationships at risk. You MUST hire people you trust to do your data entry. If your organizations uses students, volunteers or temporary workers to carry out data entry, ensure that they are trained as rigorously as you would full-time staff.
9. Undervaluing the data entry team (part 2):
I started my development career as a gift processor so this issue is close to my heart.
The data processing team sees every gift that comes into your organization. Not only that, but they also see the way that donors are using your forms and get to read all the little “love notes” that they include. This means that they have insight into your donors in a way that no one else at your organization does.
They are also primary stakeholders in your policies, procedures and workflows. If you aren’t staffing these roles with people you trust, whose input you value, you are missing out on a valuable resource.
10. Placing unrealistic demands on your database administrator:
Good database administrators (DBA) are like wizards, wielding their magic to give fundraisers the data they need to make informed, strategic decisions. But, all databases have constraints and even the most skilled data conjurer will not be able to overcome them. Poor communication and lack of clarity with regard to data requests can result in reports having to be generated multiple times before it is right, which is horribly inefficient.
So set some standards, and perhaps even provide training, to ensure that the request for data is clear, that no crucial piece of information is missing, all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed, BEFORE the request is made so that you get the outcomes you need.
In reality, database problems are rarely about the system, but the people using it. A database is a tool and tools exist to be used by people. So by empowering your database users with training, skills, policies and procedures, and through good communication, you can ensure that your database is one of the most powerful tools in your fundraising toolbox.
About the author:
Joseph Conley, bCRE-P, is an educational consultant with Blackbaud. Prior to that, he worked in the Development office of the Archdiocese of Boston. When he is not nose deep in a database, Joe can be found 50 feet underwater scuba-diving or (very reluctantly) running around the streets of Boston.