Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Your Database Isn't the Problem

There are few absolute truths in fundraising. No matter how large or small the organization, there are a few things I've never heard: "We have plenty of staff, time, money and resources", "Managing volunteers is easy", and "Our database is perfect and I get happy just logging in every day".

After you've finished giggling, consider this thought: The database isn't the problem. The way it's managed, used, resourced, etc. is. For the past  12 or so years I've had great relationships with all of the major fundraising database providers, regardless of how many times they change their names or buy other companies. I'm a fan of Banner (gasp) I think Raiser's Edge is brilliant and find that databases are not the darth vadar we all make them out to be. I am a self confessed data nerd as well though. So how do I help you stop banging your head on your desk and using your database's name as a four letter word? It's simple, I'm going to help you make it easier for everyone.

The database shouldn't be blamed for the following: it's software hasn't been updated in years (think of not updating the apps on your phone), there is ONE person with the proper training to understand how it works, the database doesn't work like Amazon, or Google, the people managing the database re never allowed out of their cubicles (which usually reside in  basement, converted garage, or strip mall), far from the fancy corner offices some of us live in, no one ever invites the data folks to meetings. Think of all of the factors and ask yourselves if you would be high functioning if these circumstances were true.

Have you ever met someone who can understand and speak multiple languages? Follow along my metaphor with me. We all NEED to have someone like this in our organizations. Unfortunately so much is lost in translation. We need to hire more people that understand fundraising but also "speak geek" as I say it. I happily serve as this translator at many organizations. How do we intelligently explain our needs to folks who have never met a donor in most cases? How do they build reports that work for fundraisers if  they aren't included in the process from the beginning? We need to advocate for resources for the center, to build our infrastructure. I can tell you that good data folks will make you millions, bad data and poor infrastructure can ruin an operation. It's not the system, it's how it's used, managed and resourced. It takes time, dedication and money to build a proper infrastructure but is a phenomenal investment.

How do we educate the nonbelievers? We show them that regardless of the database or system, if it's junk in, it's junk out. We tell them that they have to explain WHY they need the report and what they're going to do with it. We also need to send data folks to fundraising conferences and fundraisers to database conferences. Spending a day in someone's shoes is a wonderful way to help them appreciate. Some folks don't know what the end user needs and why that makes sense.Finally, we need to hire people with multiple sets of skills and help designate the translators to bridge the gaps.

So tell me about your database? How do you work with your tech team to make it work for you?
How can I help you solve your database issues- I speak geek proudly, join me!


  1. This is the best description of my job that I have ever read. It is unfortunate, in the field of nonprofit, that there often is not time or funding to send us to conferences or training seminars. I have worked in Raiser's Edge for nearly 10 years now, and everything I know I learned from either trial and error or from the help of their CS department by phone. I am very protective of the database, and work very, very hard to clean up the years' of mess left before I got here. Thank you for recognizing that the "data geeks" need to be included in all fundraising aspects - we will truly make the organization flourish! A

  2. Great blog Lynne. Lots of great observations. You should take a look at thankQ sometime. Unusually we do have clients who say "Our database is perfect and I get happy just logging in every day". I would be happy to walk you though the system sometime.

  3. Great advice, Lynne! I particularly like your comparison of a less-than current database to old apps on your phone. We all do that without thinking about it because it's so obvious that getting the latest version makes sense. Fortunately, app updates are generally free and the only hassle is waiting the 30 seconds for the new version. Database updates are often expensive and a prolonged (and usually painful) process, but as you point out “It takes time, dedication and money to build a proper infrastructure but is a phenomenal investment.” You are so right! Thanks for this great post.

  4. Great post, Lynne!

    Unfortunately so much is lost in translation! We need to hire more people that understand fundraising but also “speak geek” (as I say it).

    A few years ago I attended the AFP International Conference in Baltimore. At that conference I had the chance to speak to some of the professionals in charge of creating and developing the CFRE certification program. In those conversations, I actively encouraged the organization to take the lead in developing a Nonprofit Technology certification.

    Who is a nonprofit technologist? It’s someone who understands the “foreign language” that Lynne speak about. Someone who can translate what hardware and software can or can’t do to a development staff member; and who can equally translate why it is important to track donor preferences and giving history to an IT person.

    Once the other party fully understands the need, the solution is usually easy to find and everyone wins!

    Robert Weiner is a professional peer that understands technology and nonprofits. Laura Quinn is another. There are many others in our industry. We need to push for professional development in this arena because as technology gets more advanced, it behooves the fundraiser to leverage that technology.

    Empowering nonprofits and leveraging technology is what Beyond Nines was founded on. Our team includes many nonprofit technologists. We strongly encourage a cross-disciplinary approach for all nonprofits.

  5. As a data geek, I really wish that more Development Directors would realize just how much work it is to do the daily data upkeep, much less to clean up years of past neglect. I'm two years in at my job, but I'm still trying to clean up twelve years of users who didn't know the first thing about donor data storage. I wish non-profits would quit trying to save money on their data positions and realize that they need to look at them as professional positions and not as an administrative assistant position.