Database Tracking 101: No Train, No Gain

Database lesson learned.

The first nonprofit I worked for was a business reference library. The primary service was to provide to patrons a set of databases for business research. I knew the most basic information about these databases – namely, that they existed – but, because I wasn’t a librarian, nobody trained me on their use or really even told me what they could do. Which became a problem when my boss assigned me a big project.

I was asked to build a list of all the businesses in a certain zip code and get the contact information of each business owner. That sounded like a huge task to me, and because I didn’t know about the technology tools available to me, it was a huge task. I spent hours digging up the information using every method I could think of, completely oblivious to the fact that there was a database at my disposal that could do all that work for me. Then I copied and pasted that information into a spreadsheet. What a pain.

When I turned to a librarian for some commiseration, she reacted with surprise instead. She showed me a database that, had I known how to use it, would have made this project an almost instantaneous process rather than a few days of tedium. What I had spent so much time doing, that librarian accomplished in about a minute. The whole thing was not just embarrassing, but a huge waste of time that I could have spent doing other important work.

 

Why have the technology if no one knows how to use it?

I’m afraid that this is often the case with technology. Nonprofits don’t always have the time or resources to train their employees – or they trick themselves into thinking they don’t. I’ve heard from a number of nonprofit workers that their organization bought a CRM but literally no one on staff knows how to use it or why they even have it; they just hope they will figure it out someday when there’s time. It’s so disheartening to hear that nonprofits are investing money into their technology but not time, which in effect becomes a waste of that money.

Everyone who staffs your front desk, helps your clients, works with computers, interacts with the public, or supervises those employees, should be trained in the technology your nonprofit uses. When everyone has access to technology, information can be shared more easily and efficiently.

 

Using your database democratically.

A database can include all kinds of information on donors and clients that staff members need to share. You might think nobody outside of the development department needs to have access to donor information, but then you’d be missing out on interactions other staff members may have had with your donors at fundraising events or just in day-to-day operations. Remember that the R in CRM stands for Relationship, and every contact your staff members have with your donors contributes to that relationship. Letting people across departments share information across a database strengthens your relationship with your donors, clients, and volunteers. But if you don’t let all relevant staff members in on the database’s use, you might lose that information.

 

It’s about relationships.

Just as you want to cultivate a relationship with your donors, you can also get a lot of benefit from a relationship with your software provider. Consider looking for someone who partners with you from the beginning, gets to know you, and walks you through the learning process at a pace that works for you. It’s kind of like dating. Your nonprofit has unique needs, and a software provider that isn’t attentive to those needs isn’t going to be great for you in the long run. It might seem fun or good enough at first, but you might eventually realize they’re just “not that into you” and were more interested in making a sale than in providing ongoing support.

 

No train, no gain.

Technology can be a big investment, and a database is a complex thing, so make sure you are making time for training. When looking for new technology, consider the relationship you want to have with your software provider. Do you want to spend a lot of time figuring out the technology on your own, or would you rather partner with a company that provides ongoing training for any staff members who need it?


 

Note from the editor:

There was a time when I worked in an organization where it was hard to see past the short-term work to see the long term gain. We had so many databases and so many lists in so many different places; Google Docs, various WordPress plugins, and even our other 3rd party website host had its own database. We also collected money for different subscriptions and merchandise items on a couple different platforms, which all had their own way of collecting names. Did you follow all that? We sure didn’t.

The absolute best thing we did for our own sanity and organization was roll up our sleeves and clean up those lists. In doing so, we came up with a way to streamline all of the data into one place. Not to mention, everyone had a chance to learn their part of the different arms of software we were using. There’s no way around it and, unfortunately, a nice way to tackle this task doesn’t really exist (that we’ve found). To be quite candid, in the short term, it totally sucks to consolidate lists of thousands of names while you’re doing it—but it has to be done. Similar to retailers taking inventory of their merchandise, it’s one long night and no easy task, but it sets the team up for success for the entire year to come. Whether you decide to use old-fashioned spreadsheets or commit to a higher-tech CRM software, pick something, stick to it and make sure all the right people know how to access the data.