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It’s Time for a New Database… (An EALS Post)

I work for a nonprofit organization where my title is the incredibly glamorous “Administrative Assistant and Database Coordinator.”

Sometimes when talking myself up I like to say I’m the “Database Manager” as it sounds slightly more important. A couple months ago, my management was questioned when on a development call with the board chair the following bomb was casually dropped, “It’s time for a new database.”

I sat on the other end of the phone in horror. Sure, our database currently has lots of problems, but that’s not because of the program, it’s because of the data.

We have data imported from Sales Force, Sphere, Excel, Access, Oasis, Giftworks…the list is never ending.

The worst part of all: all this data was input, coded, and organized in different ways by different people. I am the Database Coordinator for a database to which at least seven different individuals currently access over 20 years of data. I spend a majority of my time cleaning up bad data, reorganizing and coding current data, and being contacted by upset staff who don’t understand why their 19 slightly different codes were combined into a single one.

Bad data = bad database! Importing it into a new one isn’t going to make it any better.

The call ended before I could formulate my thoughts enough to express myself beyond, “Um, ok” and so my reflections were left un-aired. So I decided I must simply buckle down, suit up, and prepare to get messy with data migration, Ms. Frizzle-style.

But database meltdowns are hardly unique to my organization. It was as I stood at my new internship, biting the inside of my cheek to keep from bursting out “LET ME DO IT” while a staff member attempted to teach the rest of the staff how to use their brand new online database, that I realized arts nonprofits are facing a major data problem. In fact I’d like to hazard a guess that most, if not all, nonprofit organizations have had a major database meltdown. So the question is, why is this happening?

I think the answer may be simple. Nonprofits are fundamentally about “giving back” to our society. Whether we give back through promoting the arts, animals, or the environment, we are organizations that ultimately rely on the love and support of people; we are run by people, governed by people, and supported by people. Our bottom line lies with our donors. So why the bad data?

Because we we’re taking individual human beings that often we know and are connected with and turning them into data. We take individuals with all their likes, dislikes, interests, talents, and the million of little facets that make them unique and simplifying them down to: Name, Address, and Giving History.

When I first started trying to manage my database I was on the phone multiple times a week with staff members explaining to them what I had done, why I had done it, and why not every little piece of information that they knew about a donor was a relevant data point.

On one side I had staff members that wanted me to know all the millions of things about each donor as an individual person while on the other I had an executive director and board chair looking for specific lists of every individual in the state of Maryland who had a previous relationship with the organization, a child with the condition, donated a total amount of over $1,000 in the fiscal year of 2009, not including the purchase of books or conference fees!

They wanted each individual to be accessible as a cross set of data points, but in order to accomplish such queries I had to make some upsetting changes including getting rid of over 1,000 unnecessary codes, starting from scratch on the flagging system, and creating very specific data entry directions.

So is there a happy medium between human being and data point? I believe so.

Database systems are so advanced these days that just about every piece of information has a place and if you cannot find a place for that piece of information, there’s always a list of contacts or a free form “notes” area where little details can be discovered.

But ultimately we must realize that our data will never be completely perfect. Human beings are profoundly imperfect creatures and compartmentalizing them into various sortable data points means you are NEVER going to know everything. However I think it is possible to know enough.

I suggest to CONSIDER CAREFULLY your database. What are its costs, and what are your needs? Be careful how you code things! Make sure when you’re coding monetary funds that those codes match your accounting software. Take the time to train all your staff members on how to use the database. Consider giving those who do not need to be entering data read-only access.

Remember that data is personal and should be protected. You can find some more interesting database suggestions for membership organizations here.

Please join us at the Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium, coming up on April 15 in Washington, DC (just before Arts Advocacy Day)! Spend a whole day with other amazing arts managers—share your knowledge and learn something new.

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