4 min read

In times of crisis, decisions must be made quickly and accurately—but a poor database makes this difficult if not impossible. It is essential—crisis or no—to have a useful and well-used database.

I like to use the analogy with new clients that a database is like a house your data lives in. And the materials it’s made of determine how well your database is built and managed.

In the story of the Three Little Pigs, one pig built his house out of straw, one out of sticks, and one out of bricks. Each one was better than the last, but only the house of bricks survived the unforeseen crisis of the Big Bad Wolf. As you picture how you store and manage your data, what would you say your “house” is made of? Straw, sticks, or bricks? Be honest.

You may ask, what do porcine fables have to do with the quality of a database and weathering a crisis? Generally, we must take some action in order to survive a crisis. Nonprofit leaders need to make decisions. To make informed decisions—and it certainly seems as though the stakes are suddenly much higher with each decision—you need data that only your database can give you.

When COVID-19 became a national emergency, many nonprofits went from “business as usual” to a “war footing” overnight, and the first place leaders of nonprofits looked for answers was their database:

“How many donors normally give in March, April, and May but haven’t given this year?”

“How many pledges are outstanding?”

“Do we have any pending grants?”

“What are the stats on our monthly donors so we can track drop-off during quarantine?”

“Who’s registered to attend our upcoming event? Who just received an invitation? Who is sponsoring the event?”

“Which donors are in the most affected cities, and how long has it been since we contacted them?”

“Do we have email addresses and phone numbers and demographic info to best coordinate our outreach to affected constituents?”

These are just a few of the questions I heard as people turned to their databases to give them the information they needed to effectively communicate with their constituents. Unfortunately, many nonprofits are not setup for success in this regard due to the poor condition and management of their database.

In many cases, their database is built with sticks and straw:

  1. There’s no database owner or person who can find the answers
  2. There’s little-to-no categorization (e.g. separating out types of donors or donors at certain levels)
  3. Donations aren’t totaled in a useful way
  4. Duplicates and empty field values are rampant
  5. There are no tracked activities or past actions
  6. There’s no relationship between records tying them together

I could go on, but you get the point. While we may not always see these issues when we are actually in the database, we certainly notice the problems created when we try to use that data:

  1. Mild to severe irritation amongst staff who are obligated to wrestle with the system—especially under pressure or a time crunch
  2. Spending many hours or even days to pull reports and queries that, once pulled, still aren’t quite right
  3. A single donor scattered across different households, foundations, companies, and trusts because of their different giving vehicles, making a holistic donor view impossible or nearly impossible (and never certain)
  4. The same donor showing up twice with different information depending on which record is pulled
  5. No documentation or proper training to aid newcomers—or, worse, situations where “That one person who knew how to pull data” has left the organization and now your database functions more like a lockbox or a time capsule

But who cares about these problems? Most organizations don’t! After all, they put up with their terrible system and shoddy practices day after day. Their solution is simply to work, albeit inefficiently, around the problems.

And then a crisis hits. Organizations can’t get the answers they need. Leaders can’t make decisions based on accurate data. Suddenly, the database is the most important thing in the world, and it’s not working for you but against you. Unfortunately, you can’t build a house in the middle of the storm either—you’re stuck with what you’ve got.

I expect that COVID-19 will serve as an indictment of many organizations’ (mis-)handling of data. When the dust settles and the quarantines are lifted, questions may be asked as to why the database wasn’t able to perform satisfactorily under the stress of an emergency or a huge shift in priorities.

To be sure, I know a number of organizations that are able to rely on their database. They get the answers and the data they need. This allows them to be responsive with communication and make decisions with alacrity. They realized firsthand that it pays to build your house with bricks: hire admins, clean data, track demographics, assign major donors to MGOs, track activities with constituents, put your database in the cloud, and so on and on.

It’s a lot easier to build your house with straw and sticks. A good database—like a good strategic plan—takes a lot of work. It’s a lot easier to shove everything into a spread sheet, not track activities, and never clean your data. But you never know when crisis will strike. When it does, will your house stand or collapse around you?

If I can be a resource as you work to assess your database situation and plan for the future, please feel free to email me at dironside@americanphilanthropic.com.

For the next several weeks, Philanthropy Daily will be a resource for fundraisers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back daily for new articles addressing news about coronavirus and philanthropy and providing strategic and practical recommendations for weathering this storm as a fundraiser.

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