By Chani Adams
Chances are that when the topic of data management arises at most nonprofits, it is met with heavy sighs and rolling eyes. But, mundane as it may seem to on the surface, good data collection and use is at the heart of all successful development programs.
Donors expect a deep relationship with the organizations they support and if you don’t know who they are – not just their names but their families, interests, and connections – then you miss out on opportunities to regularly strengthen those relationships.
And yet, how to gather and manage this important information is a daunting question for many organizations. Like many compelling questions, this one invites further questions: What do I really need? How complex does my data management system need to be? What resources or knowledge is necessary to make it work for me? How do I navigate the growing list of options?
The best approach is to start with what your organization needs, not what it might want. Here are some questions to help guide the process of determining what approach to data management will work best for your cause. And remember: it’s easy to scale up. So start small, and make sure what you are doing works well before you add layers of complexity.
1. What are your human resources?
Even the most easy to use, one-size-fits-all data management software has a learning curve, and implementing software is only half the battle. Keeping it clean and running smoothly and regularly updated is equally as important. Do you have someone on staff with the time to learn the system and teach it to others? Can you invest in regular, ongoing training? Who do you expect will use the system? Professional staff? Lay leaders?
2. What is your budget?
Remember that data software is never a one-time fee. There’s ongoing training, staff time dedicated to maintenance, additional features and services, above and beyond any implementation or subscription costs. Make sure to factor in all these possible incidentals when determining your budget.
3. How good is your data now?
Garbage in, garbage out. If your existing data is a mess, then step one is getting that data clean and up-to-date. Eliminate duplicates and make sure information is accurate, organized, and thorough.
4. What do you really need to know?
What information do you need to have on your donors and prospects? If you’re a school, you’ll want to know the names of current and former students and in which activities they’ve excelled. If you’re a community center, you’ll want to know what programs each family member participated in. If you’re a synagogue, you’ll want to know birthdays and other important anniversaries. Think beyond the basics of contact information and possible wealth capacity. Think about what will help you deepen and sustain your relationship with the donor. What will give you the opportunity to stay in touch and show them you care? Then, look for a system that meets these specific needs and no more.
5. What else does the system need to do?
Does it need to integrate with admissions? With a CRM? With accounting or billing? Does it need to generate letters or integrate wealth screening? How many users will it allow and what control do you have over what they can access? What kinds of reports do you need to run? Can you make changes to the system, like adding fields and creating reports, yourself, or do you need to pay the data company each time you need an adjustment or expansion? Consider all the factors that might be important now and for the next five years.
Once you’ve answered these key questions take a step back and ask “What If?” What if we started with an excel spreadsheet? Do we have someone who can manage a complex excel spreadsheet or could learn to do so with some online training? What if we continued to use our current system but changed our approach? What if we started with a scaled down version of software, or used a new, online-based system instead of one of the larger more complex options?
There are a lot of choices in today’s modern and online-based world. To find what’s best for your organization, make sure to thoughtfully consider all the facets of your needs, resources, and future.
Chani Adams is Director of Strategic Planning at RAISE Nonprofit Advisors. She specializes in collecting and interpreting data to gain a comprehensive picture of an organization’s operations and pinpoint opportunities for growth.