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April 9 2012

Attributes of a Data Driven Organization

So you have powerful new database and are ready to go all-in with supporter engagement but you're not there yet. You can see that the grass in greener on the other side, but how do you get from here to there?

Online technology won't make your organization work any better. You have to change your organization in order to make the technology work for you. Many organizations that shift to using a CRM database won't see immediate returns if adoption of the tool is low or not distributed well across staff members. Also, data entry and data analysis practices must be standardized otherwise it's the Wild West of database management. Change must come from within and no technology platform can deliver it for you.

Dysfunction Junction

Before we look at the qualities of a highly functioning organization, let's look at a few scenarios that may be all too familiar. Here are a few hallmarks of organizations that haven't successfully made the transition to a data driven culture:

  • Expertise in the database is bottlenecked around one or two staff. Often a development or membership director sits at the center of a database. It's all too easy for that person to take on too much responsibility for the database. If you are that person and you keep being asked by others to "enter this contact info for me", or "look up so-and-so" your organization is not using its database efficiently. You don't need everyone on staff to be super-star users but if you have people who never learn to use the database at all, it's going to be a problem because people who need information won't easily be able to get it.
  • Some staff members openly disavow the new database. If the database has historically been thought of strictly as a "fundraising" tool you may have a hard time convincing your program or campaign staff to get involved. Senior staff members must actively promote use of the new platform and expect that everyone gets on board. Avoid organizational "silos" around adoption of the database. The point of CRM is that an organization can know everything about their constituents in one place instead of having it spread around in various people's heads.
  • Regular processes are painful. It's a sure sign that your organization does not have a handle on its database if getting the newsletter out, acknowledging donations, or making an annual report takes an extraordinary amount of time.
  • Data entry and reporting is inconsistent. If you don't have a standard way of entering and reporting on data you can never effectively use a database. You know you have problems here if folks are saying things like:

    "I don't even know what that field is for"
    "I didn't know where to put that stuff so I just put it in the notes field"
    "I just build new reports every time - I can never find existing ones that I want to use"
    "I don't have time to learn how to do put this into the database, I just keep a spreadsheet on my desktop."
    "It's really hard to find my [campaign, contact, account] because I can't tell which one I'm supposed to use."

If this sounds like your office, you've got problems. If you don't address them early in your adoption cycle you will have a tangled mess of data building up under you and it can be a long and painful process to make it truly useful again. Standardization is key here. Copy editors use a style guide to keep their writing consistent. Database users should have a clear understanding of naming conventions, proper use of fields, and who to ask if something complicated comes up.

Making Progress

Unless you can rise above the problems outlined above you won't really see a good return on your database investment. Executive directors and other senior staff need to make adoption and standardized use a priority. Put it into job descriptions and cover database usage in performance reviews. Talk about issues during staff meetings. Make your database a part of your organization that everyone feels a vested interest in.

Let's look at some attributes of organizations when they start really cooking:

  • Standardization is key. It can't be overstated how important it is to get everyone using the database in the same way. It's very easy to slip up here so you must remain vigilant. At a minimum you must have a naming convention and a shared understanding of how fields are used. Reports are only as good as the underlying data and if it's garbage in, it will be garbage out.
  • Take time for regular data cleanup. In addition to standardization, deduplication, filling in missing field data, archiving old data, and other data hygiene tasks need to become part of your regular operations. This will prevent "cruft" from accumulating in your database making it harder to use over time.
  • The database is actively documented. While it can help to have a paid consultant write documentation, it's far better if documentation becomes an "in-house" project. Key business processes should be documented and updated regularly as practices change over time. This will greatly improve your ability to use the database consistently and will help new staff coming on board.
  • Incrementally improve your database over time. You should think of your database as a living document of your organization. You will want to make changes to your database functionality as you become more familiar with the platform and as your organization changes the way it does its work. Don't let things get too stale!

The Promised Land

Now, let's look at some examples of an organization which has achieved a high level of database acumen. Use these ideas as your guidestar for where you should be trying to go:
  • Everyone uses the database to at least some extent
  • A few, or at least one, staff are high-level users. They get excited about seeing the database perform well and can see it having a positive impact on the success of the organization. These people actively learn more and more about database administration. They are the "go-to" people to problem solve within the organization and can train new staff members as they come on board
  • Your organization is doing data analysis. It's one thing to enter and look up basic contact info, but if that's all you're doing then what you have is basically an expensive Rolodex. Top performing organizations go deep into data analysis. You should be asking questions like:

    "Which supporters in our database consistently respond to our calls to action? Let's mark who they are in the database so we can reach out to them quickly when we need to call on our top supporters."
    "Is there a demographic which is underrepresented in our database? What can we do to attract more (young folks, rural communities, businesses, etc)."
    "Our click-through rates on our email blasts have stayed flat for months. Let's do some A/B testing to figure out if we can improve our subject lines, choice of content, or targeting."

    Analysis is important because you can support your decision making with better information, including summaries, totals, charts, and forecasts that answer real questions from your management or board.  You can also increase engagement by carefully tracking the involvement of your most involved constituents. It's what using CRM effectively is all about.

  • Effective use of the database continues through organizational change and staff turnover. All too often we've seen a key staff person leave an organization and take the bulk of database knowledge and context with them. Don't let this happen to you - it can take months or even years to achieve that level of expertise again. Distribute responsibility among several staff. Have a plan for training new staff and capturing critical context from those about to leave.
  • Regular business processes can be performed reliably. Your reports and outreach activities should be technically straightforward with a minimum of surprises or impediments. You should have more time to focus on your messaging, targeting, quality etc.
  • Integrated systems are working well together. You shouldn't have to tinker with your payment processor for donations or worry about your web forms from breaking connection with your database. Effective organizations enjoy reliable integration with these external systems even during periods of heavy use.

Awesome article! I can see a diagnostic tool lurking in here!

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