Keeping good data, as unglamorous as it may sound, is essential to operating any business, whether for-profit or not. Aside from being the only way to see what’s happened in the past, it’s also a way to predict the future. Just look at the work of statisticians like Nate Silver, who used data to predict the results of 49 of the 50 states in the 2008 Presidential election.
Wouldn’t you like to be able to predict who will or will not donate to you with that much accuracy?
Tools like DonorTrends make that type of prediction a reality, but predictive tools are based on having good data to feed into them. So today we talk about three things that happen all too frequently in the nonprofit world and can severely hamper your ability to keep good data.
1. Don’t have a good grasp on what you want to track and how you’re going to track it
Often, there isn’t enough planning upfront to determine what data should be tracked and how to track that data effectively so that you can use it later. Information is stuck willy-nilly into a database or – heaven forbid – unstructured notes or documents, and too late, you find that you don’t have the right info or you can’t find it in your system. Trying to pull together a simple report becomes torture. Forget about trying to do any meaningful analysis.
The antidote: Plan! An ounce of upfront planning will save you a ton of work later. Start at the top by looking at the analysis you want to do, and then work your way down to a good plan for how to track the data so that you can do that analysis.
2. Keep your data in many systems
Sometimes, this happens as a necessity because there may not be one single system that can track every type of data you have. But more often than not, this multi-system approach seems to come about because there isn’t a clear understanding of how to use the primary system, so people start putting pieces of their data in other programs that are more familiar to them. Before you know it, you’ve got your data strung out across three databases plus Word Documents and spreadsheets stored on ten different computers, and you have no good way of pulling it all together.
The antidote: Train! Know exactly what your primary system can track and how to set it up for your needs, and make sure everyone who will be collecting data knows how to enter it correctly into your system. And if you find that your primary system just can’t track what you need or no one can use it properly, find a new one.
Data gets stale over time, people make typos and forget to enter things, and sometimes you find that your original data plan needs to change to accommodate changes in your strategy. If you never take the time to look at your data and fix the things that need fixing, then all of your planning and training will be for naught – you will still have data that you can’t rely on.
The antidote: Assess! You must periodically assess your data for weaknesses. If you’ve set up your data in a good system, it should be easy to run reports to see where data is missing or has grown stale. And if you’re in a really good system, you will be in a better position to update your data and change your strategy as needed.
Ready to take control over your donor database? Download our free eBook – Data That Changes The World – Your Guide to Building, Maintaining & Leveraging an Effective Nonprofit Database – to get started.
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