It is that time of year again: you’ve made it through the end-of-year fundraising rush and post-holiday data cleanup (hopefully!), and your Spring events and campaigns are still pretty quiet (for now). If this sounds like you, I’d suggest taking this opportunity to optimize systems and processes, and make an impact on your fundraising efforts for the entire year.
Blocking and Tackling. If you haven’t already, take a look at my Spring Cleaning Your Database article from this time last year. This is what’d I’d consider the “blocking and tackling” of data maintenance, and these fundamentals won’t vary much from year-to-year. If you haven’t carried out these primary tasks, take the time to do so now! Data is the lifeblood of any contemporary fundraising organization, and bad data costs your organization time and money, and can lead to missed opportunities. If you’ve mastered these fundamentals, read on…
Addressing Root Causes. If you’ve carried out these basic cleanup activities, take the time to address the root causes of bad data and improve the quality of your data over time (or, at least make sure you don’t have to go through such an extensive process again next year). Try to determine the underlying cause for persistent issues. For instance, reporting issues are often caused by poor data entry or management practices – the report is just bringing those issues to the surface. Bad data is often brought in through integrations or imports, so look at technical as well as human causes. Once you’ve identified and prioritized these root causes, make a formal plan and get management commitment to secure resources.
Using the System. A common cause of data issues is simply non-use of the system. This results in missing data, especially the rich detail that fundraisers need for high-touch cultivation, and creates side effects such as shadow systems. Users often don’t understand the intent or value of a system, and treat it as administrative overhead, rather than an important part of their roles or something that can improve their results. Ensure all users understand the value the system brings to the organization, that the system is easy-to-use (see training below), and that others use and depend on the system. Here are some more thoughts on this topic.
Using the System the Right Way. Users often don’t know how (or have forgotten how) to carry out tasks in information systems, which results in users treating the system as a “box to be checked” and doing the bare minimum required to accomplish their jobs. With this in mind, I’d stress that training isn’t just a tour of the options in the system. It needs to be role-based and optimized for the real-world business practices of your users. You often need to “lead a horse to water” in terms of getting users to understand the potential of how a system can help them. For instance, walk a major gift officer through filing a call report and pulling a data list in a 1:1 setting, and ensure they understand how the detail they enter shows up in the system in other areas (for instance, the dashboard the Executive Director uses to track moves on prospects – more on this in a moment). This is time-intensive, but can be invaluable in terms of mutual education on how the system aligns with the real-world.
I’d also emphasize that contemporary training is highly targeted to specific learning objectives, ongoing and evolving over time, and (where possible) on-demand to remove scheduling and geographic barriers. More on this in a future post.
Review Security Levels and System Access. Organizations change and evolve over time, and so should your fundamental system settings and configurations. Do a quick review of “who can do what” in the system, and make sure it is relevant for each role and user. In some cases, users will benefit from being able to do more in the system (e.g. transitioning from a daily user to more of a power user), although the opposite is true as well: limiting options and streamlining the user interface can simplify the system and enhance the usability of the system for those who don’t need all of the “bells and whistles” in the system. Don’t be afraid to restrict some users to read-only access. Well-meaning users can erase or corrupt valuable information.
Write It Down. Policies that aren’t written down have a half-life of about two weeks. At the same time, over-documented policies can be too complex to follow and maintain in practice, making them just as useless. I’m a big fan of visuals and job aids, and have found that process documentation that can fit on a single page will actually get read, leading to a much higher rate of adoption (perceived ease of use as noted above). Be sure to assign team members as appropriate to keep documentation up to date as your organization changes.
Backup and Recovery. Take the time to check your database backups and review your disaster recovery plans. If your system is Software-as-a-Service or web-based, don’t assume that the vendor has everything taken care of, get details on their backup and restore policies so you fully understand what to expect in an emergency.
Make It Stick. Make sure that users at every level of your organization have visibility into the work you and your team are doing to clean up and enhance your systems. And, don’t be afraid to get your organization’s leadership involved. Providing dashboards or other reports on data to executives is a good way to raise awareness of the importance of data to the right level in the organization – if something isn’t right, it will often stick out when reviewed by management. Similarly, having executives and managers using the system will encourage others to do so (for instance, an email from the Executive Director or a Board Member to a major gift officer asking if data in the system is correct and up to date).
Of course, complex system issues are often multifaceted and, unfortunately, in some cases intractable, for a variety of reasons, especially when factoring in human and cultural components. At the same time, I’ve found that nominal and regular enhancements to business processes yield big returns in the long run.
Other thoughts on optimizing your database? Please post to comments.
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