Destruction by Database

My very first job out of college was at an agency that called itself a “database marketing” firm. They didn’t market databases; they used data to make informed marketing decisions. I had the glamorous job of working in the Response Center, answering inbound telemarketing calls and entering direct mail leads generated by the smart marketing that had been executed for their clients.

I never got far from data the rest of my career. From analyzing client direct response results to understanding how a nonprofit was capturing data so I could later request it, using data has always been a part of my job. I’ve seen data managed with kid gloves, every piece of information carefully captured, updated and reported as it comes in. I’ve also seen great measures of data be shredded rather than entered into the database, thousands of potential relationships rolled out the door in a bin after years of lingering in a drawer.

From all of this, I have one piece of advice for nonprofits, and you can quote me on this:

Invest in your database.

— Jenny Floria

Pretend you just bought a new car. Congratulations! You have a car! It runs smoothly, it’s quiet, it is awesome. But you don’t change the oil, put air in the tires, or do anything to maintain the car. It gets louder and louder over time, the ride gets bumpier and, well, in no time at all you’ve got a clunker on your hands.

The same thing happens when you don’t regularly invest in your database. Here are some of the ways in which I’ve seen nonprofits pay in the long run for not investing in their databases.

Nonprofit A purchases a highly-recommended and relatively expensive database. The person put in charge of the database often ignores the upgrades the software company recommends installing, figuring the updates aren’t worth the time or money. Before they know it 10 years have passed and the database doesn’t capture more than two phone numbers per household (because who’s got more numbers besides “work” and “home?”). They re-invest in a new database and move the data, losing much of it in the conversion as the fields were not properly mapped since the old database was so antiquated.

Nonprofit B uses a free database. This meets their needs for the first few years when they’ve only got a couple of hundred donors. They grow quickly and need to raise big money for their expansion. They realize they don’t have current addresses on many of their founding donors, they have phone numbers captured in one of four different fields and can’t do any wealth screening because their data can’t be matched due to its inconsistencies. They have to pause their campaign to make an investment in a database, something they should have done earlier.

Outside of the initial purchase and licensing expenses, how should nonprofits be investing in their databases?

  • Put the right people in charge of the database. Give the job to a professional who knows the ins and outs of databases and what is needed to keep them running effectively.
  • Treat the data like your nonprofit depends on it…because it does. No matter how insignificant it may seem, every piece of information could be a treasure. Evaluate every source and make sure your database has the ability to capture it, even if you choose not to.
  • Update update update. Unless the initial purchase decision was completely disastrous, it is nearly always more effective to continue working with your current database than move to a new one. Budgets have been blown, deadlines extended, good employees resigned, and potential revenue left on the table in the midst of database conversions.
  • Train people on how to use the database. This includes training your database manager, who should stay up-to-date on the latest developments. When updates occur, make sure users are aware and know how to use the new features.
  • Have consistent data capture. Where data is stored and how it is used should not change every time a staff member walks in the door. Have written documentation of when, where and how data is captured so that it continues to flow regardless of who is working at the nonprofit.

Data is at the heart of your business. You want your major gift officers to reach donors at the right phone number, your appeals to reach people at their current address, and to understand the relationship between donors and your organization. Make these investments in your database for your team to succeed.

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