Maybe The Problem with Your Database Is You

I can say that, because I used to be the problem.

(Let’s assume your database is well constructed and well maintained.)

The first time I noticed was back in the day – I was ripping my CDs to my hard drive, and my buddy Joe called – we had a gig that night and we had to plan what gear were were going to bring. When I told him what I was doing, there was a pause:

“You *are* adding in the titles and all of that stuff, right?” he asked.

(Of course, now I know that he was talking about meta data. You know, the stuff that makes the NSA hot and sweaty. That’s okay – it should make *you* hot and sweaty, too).

I wasn’t doing that.

“Thing is”, Joe said – “if you don’t do it now, you never will. I have 1,000 songs, and the title for each of them is ‘track 1’ – just sayin’.”

The second time I noticed was when I was working as a bookkeeper. I had to get some checks entered so they could go off to the board for a signature. I entered the name, the amount, and thought I was done.

Bill looked at me. “You *are* going to enter the address, right?” he asked. “You know – so if we ever need to *mail* a check?”

I hadn’t planned on it – but both Joe and Bill were right: if I didn’t enter it now, the likelihood that I’d enter it at all was slim.

I realized that second time, that while it might be okay to be sloppy with data that was just for me – it was unfair to be sloppy with data that belonged to the company where I worked.

(Yes, I entered all of the addresses that second time).

So – what are you doing (or not doing) with your data?

Here are some common areas where scrimping now will make you suffer in the future:

  • Leaving stuff off because it’s a pain in the butt. You know – adding the address but not the zip code, or the phone number, but not the area code. You should stop that right now.
  • Putting it in notes or narrative. The moment you enter my birthdate in a text field, you’ve lost the ability to figure out my age next year, or my eligibility and a host of other things. Put the information where it belongs.
  • Skipping the stuff that takes a bit more time. You know – like making sure that you include where I work, or where I live, or who shares my house. You might have to click a few more times to enter that info – and you should.

How Do I Know What Data Is Important?

Terrific question. You won’t always know, because things change a lot. 20 years ago, no one cared if you had an email address. Today – that may be the cheapest and most effective way to communicate with someone.

So you’ll have to figure it out, as you go along. And you’ll want to work with the rest of your team – you might not care about something, but it might be valuable to someone else.

One more quick story:

I was fundraising for a living, for a theatre company. And I made an appointment to ask one of our top donors for a major gift. I went to their house, I had my pitch ready, I had a return envelope. I was ready.

When we sat down, I found out that one of our minor programs had been there the night before – and had secured a nice (but way too small) gift – precluding me from asking for the right amount.

See – I hadn’t flagged that donor in our database. And that minor program hadn’t noted that the donors kid was taking one of their classes.

So you need to work across your entire agency to determine what data you care about, and why. And how you’re going to store and maintain it.

You won’t ever be “finished” with this task – it’s ongoing. Your needs will change, the things you care about will change, and you’ll have to adapt.

One final tip: If you have to err on collecting too much or too little – take the too much. Easier to delete than to create from scratch!


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