Evelyn Mason and Rosemary Wade lament the lack of good database administrators in the nonprofit sector and how this is hurting fundraising, and consequently organisational health.

Evelyn Mason and Rosemary Wade lament the lack of good database administrators in the nonprofit sector and how this is hurting fundraising, and consequently organisational health.

Have you ever wished for a self-cleaning, self-managing database? Dirty data seriously compromises every aspect of our fundraising, but as we build larger and larger data sets, our data is certainly not getting cleaner and cleaner! It is no trivial matter: we’re talking about the life blood, the heart beat and the very soul of every nonprofit.

So why is it that so few charities and nonprofit organisations devote adequate human resources and expertise to database administration?

Dirty data leads to disaster

Remember the week before your last major campaign when you were segmenting your database only to find data anomalies – again? Remember the frustration? Remember the supporter anger in comments such as ‘I’ve told you that I don’t want to receive the newsletter so why have you sent it to me again’ or ‘why are you again snail mailing me when I’ve asked for all correspondence via email?’

Even worse, there are those supporters who do not want to hear from you again because you have finally over-stepped the mark with mailouts. Recall having to ring supporters to apologise?

The reality is that supporters just don’t understand why this happens – and we can’t blame them. In yet another data ‘shocker’ a NSW hospital foundation has lost the support of a female donor because it continued to send mail to her husband, even though he had died years ago and the widow had asked the foundation to take his name off the mailing list on numerous occasions.

In one form or another, dirty data will continue to impact negatively on the message you want to convey to your supporters. It will impact on your reporting, database segmentation, and ultimately on ROI.

In a perfect world …

Several years ago a NSW nonprofit decided to tackle the issues of database management by appointing a database administrator to manage fundraising data. It budgeted for the position and hired someone with the necessary skills.

The administrator ensured that the system was well-scoped and configured to the business rules of the organisation; that data integrity and security was maintained; reporting was accurate; all necessary actions pertaining to donors were correctly set up; that adequate system training was implemented and service agreements were in place.

There was a marked increase in returns, coupled with real savings in administration costs. Recently, this role has also embraced the integration of other systems enabling the nonprofit to broaden donor profiles and embrace all touch points their donors have with the organisation. Donors can now be targeted more accurately, maximising potential returns. Every message that is deployed from this database is now overwhelmingly more accurate than it was before the appointment of the database administrator.

Affordability an issue

Many nonprofits, particularly small to medium sized organisations, are not in a position to fund a totally dedicated database administrator. As a result, data management is blended with other positions which often results in ad hoc management rather than a well-structured approach. There are also many nonprofits that have not yet recognised the need for a dedicated database manager.

Competing with corporates

In the corporate world, database administrators are well-qualified and can problem solve. They typically support all software associated with the everyday use of the database and develop guidelines and policies that relate to its use. They also conduct system testing, troubleshooting, manage query optimisation and ensure that backups are managed appropriately. In that world, salaries vary considerably depending on the size of the corporation.

Given the vast opportunity the role offers and that top end salaries are considerable, it’s difficult to attract people to the nonprofit sector. There is only a small pool of people who are willing to move into the sector. While there are some very good database administrators who are in the nonprofit sector by choice, some may only be available by default – having failed to secure adequate employment in the corporate sector.

I am regularly asked if I know of good database administrators who would be willing to move into the nonprofit sector. I have not once succeeded in convincing anyone to make this move! The main worry is a perceived loss of opportunity for further career advancement and potential loss of income.

Grow your own administrator

A critical first step in addressing the lack of well-trained database administrators is recognising that someone needs to be dedicated to the management of a database. Nonprofits that make this decision and budget for it appropriately will stand head and shoulders above where they are now.

If hiring a database administrator is out of reach, an interim solution is to ‘grow your own’ data manager by devising a training program. Although this person would not have all the skills of a full-blown database administrator, it is perfectly feasible that you could train someone to take on some of the data management responsibilities. This small, measured approach would definitely result in improved returns.

Another longer term solution is for the nonprofit sector to offer courses on database administration, again adopting a ‘grow your own’ approach.

Although a number of larger nonprofits currently have database administrators in their IT team, many of the small to medium nonprofits appear to lack an awareness of the need for a data manager or database administrator. While this situation exists, nonprofits will continue to hurt, not only because poorly managed data will impact on every aspect of their fundraising, but because there will also be a flow-on effect into general administration and non-fundraising activities.

Administrators must have an understanding of fundraising

It is essential that the person responsible for the database understands what information fundraisers require. They must understand the direct mail process so they know how to allocate costs; they must understand acquisition and attrition and know how to determine each. They must understand segmentation and record responses accurately.

Without a comprehensive understanding of fundraising processes, the person administering the database will never realise the importance of the data they are responsible for. It is up to nonprofits to train staff that use the database. It is not good enough for the next staff member to just be shown the short cuts by the person who is about to retire or go on maternity leave.

Database staff are often undervalued. They are not just there to enter data – they are there to help the team make sense of data and use it to gain a fundraising advantage.

A final lament (by Evelyn Mason)

Recently I was asked to assist a small nonprofit with its appeals. The organisation was between fundraising staff and needed someone to tide them over. The nonprofit assured me it had a database and could do all the data entry and receipting.

To this day I still do not know how much they raised for any of the three appeals I produced on their behalf. The person responsible for the data processing had never attended any specific database training courses; she already had a busy job and was expected to do data entry between her other activities. Needless to say receipting took weeks, segmentation was not tracked and setting up appeal campaigns was unheard of.

This is not an isolated experience. All too often I have received reports from well-designed databases only to find the costs have not been included, or the costs have not been allocated to each segment so we can track dollar return for dollars spent per segment. I have had reports presented to me without the volume mailed, meaning I can’t see percentage response rates.

Evelyn Mason is an FIA award-winning fundraiser and is managing director of Evelyn Mason & Associates which consults on fundraising strategy, bequests, direct mail and major gifts. Rosemary Wade has more than 20 years experience as an IT professional practitioner and currently works as a CRM database consultant.