In philanthropy management, data is the key to godliness. And accurate, complete and usable data is the food of Gods.
When I began in fundraising…many years ago…our data on donors was kept on index cards. Yes, little white cards, or color coded, depending on your offices level of sophistication. We kept demographic data: name, address, career related information on these cards. We kept the donors financial information on these cards. We kept information on the donors interests on these cards and their latest donations. And we kept a documentation of our interaction with the donor on these cards.
Maintaining these cards was easy. One file box. A few scribes. No one could use the card at the same time. No one could ‘erase’ the data without leaving evidence of it. If you referred to the card, unless it was not written on the card to begin with, you knew exactly who was speaking with whom. The worst that could happen was the box was lost, or the card.
Pulling data from these cards in any batch effort was impossible, or nearly so. It would require days of man hours to collect a report of who was interested in pediatric surgery, or who made a gift in the last year.
Then enter the computerized database. What a joyous feeling it was to actually have a system to collect data to and query reports from!
We jumped into using the database with both feet and soon learned that our headaches had only just begun. I don’t know of one philanthropy professional who is without a war wound, horror story or hairball of a database system, because of a rush forward into technology without restraint and with ignorance to the outcomes.
What I’ve learned on the battle field is summarized here in four key mandates.
1. Assign or hire a Gatekeeper. If you don’t have a ‘gatekeeper’, someone to stand in the crows nest and oversee all actions/interactions/changes/additions/deletions to the database, get one now. Too often a database is like a blind maze, with workers in a variety of tunnels, doing their own thing to get to the end. But unless someone has the 60 thousand foot view of where they all are and directs them on how to work together, it will result in a database maze that is not cohesive, does not interact with each field and cannot be used to pull valid data or reports.
2. Create and build a manual. It is extremely important. This is not a one time thing, but an ongoing evolutionary documentation of policies, processes, guidelines, examples and rules of the database. You WILL learn something everyday about your database and respond to it. These must be captured in your manual. The manual will mostly cover technical applications of data entry and management, in an effort aimed at maintaining the integrity of the database.
3. Create a set of core values and guiding principles around what will be included in donor records. The manual you are creating will not cover the ethical or relational aspect of data entry. The manual should state HIPAA requirements if you are governed by those, but it should not document the cans and cannots of what data to put in the donor records. Often that decision is highly personalized. For that you will need a guiding principle document. Recommended guiding principles should include:
No gossip (I heard they were getting a divorce)
No unsubstantiated claims (some one told us that someone told them, etc)
No verbatim conversations
No personal interpretations or beliefs (He appears to be low on funds, I paid for our drinks and he did not stop me)
Nothing that would make the donor feel badly if they were to read it ( It was a hard meeting, as she has awful body odor)
Nothing that would unfairly sway the character view of a donor if read by someone else (He talks too much and is a braggart)
4. Build your database to the effort of your major gift program. Other fundraising programs can use it from there. A major gift program requires accurate and timely data on the donors relationships with others, current financial situation, recent employment changes, investment holdings, donations, documentation of their financial status, recent interactions, stewardship and cultivation efforts.
Data integrity is not a minor aspect of what we do. It is central to a successful philanthropy program. Pay attention to it, feed it regularly with guidance, with human resources, spend money on it, keep it clean and tuned up and it will reward you tenfold.