For the past few months, it’s been tougher to get ahold of Goodwill organizations, Salvation Army branches, and other nonprofits with resale shops. While it’s not uncommon for one organization to go radio silent during a busy period, seeing so many organizations in such a specific area all go quiet at once was a surprise.
As it turns out, they’ve all had their hands full because of one person: Marie Kondo.
Marie Kondo’s Netflix show Tidying Up launched in January and inspired a tidal wave of decluttering, leaving resale shops filled with things that don’t spark joy. Given that Tidying Up speaks to so many people, we wondered if its lessons could be applied to another place notorious for clutter—nonprofit organizations’ donor databases.
Donor databases are a lot like peoples’ homes: Though they’re used every day, their users rarely think about what they’re bringing in and where they’re putting it. As a result, clutter will build up without being noticed until it’s hard to find space for anything else. To declutter your database and keep it that way, remember these tips:
DECIDE WHERE THINGS GO BEFORE YOU PLACE THEM
Marie Kondo advises her viewers to sort possessions by category, not by room. In the same way, decluttering a database starts by looking at the different categories of data your database contains.
Ask yourself: Are all gifts properly associated with a campaign? Do all donors have contact information? Are we using our fields consistently? The answers to these questions will be much more useful than anything you’ll discover by looking at individual records.
The rules you’ll settle on will depend on your organization. For healthcare organizations, you’ll need to determine how to link donor and patient databases while respecting HIPAA laws. For arts organizations, your box office and membership team will need their own database solution that works with development. What’s important is that the rules work for everyone’s day-to-day work.
The last step is to make sure everyone knows the rules going forward. A database handbook means that every database user has a reference guide for putting everything where it needs to be. If a handbook seems like too big of a task to tackle, simple one-page “cheat sheets” can be helpful for data entry.
It can also be useful to spend some time coaching staff on their expectations and making sure they have someone to go to with questions. By making sure everybody understands what the rules are, the clutter will stop building up, leaving a tidy database.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO TIDY UP
In your home, it’s okay to get rid of things that no longer spark joy. In your database, it’s okay to tidy up records that are no longer useful by either marking them as inactive or removing them completely. The KonMari method advises against choosing what to get rid of, and instead choosing what to keep.
For your database, this can mean deleting old reports, old dashboards, or queries that are no longer used. Alternatively, marking those old funds and campaigns as inactive will keep them from appearing in dropdown menus and getting in the way of data entry. Saying “thank you” to each record before you delete it is optional (but highly recommended).
MOVING THE CLUTTER SOMEWHERE ELSE IS NOT TIDYING
In my work with nonprofit organizations, I often log into a database for the first time and find it suspiciously clean. Far too often, it’s because fundraisers aren’t using the database at all.
Instead, they’re tracking their data in an Excel spreadsheet saved on their desktop or not at all. In those cases, the clutter is ultimately worse, like a house that seems tidy with a basement packed full of junk.
Ultimately, you fix these challenges by getting all the mess in one place. Once all the data is in the database, you can take stock of how much clutter you have and come up with a solution to manage it.
But it’s also important to understand why the clutter built up in the first place. Talk to your fundraisers about why they stopped using the database, what challenges they’re facing, and what they want from the database going forward, and then make rules that reflect that.
A TIDY DATABASE IS A HAPPY DATABASE
People don’t live in houses just to clean them, and fundraisers don’t exist just to enter data. Fundraisers want easy-to-use tools that give them the right information quickly, letting them get back to talking with donors.
With a decluttered database, they can do that. Fundraisers who understand what data goes where will be more likely to use the database and spend less time using it.
Like clutter builds on itself, a decluttered database keeps itself clean. Clear rules governing data entry mean bad or misplaced data will no longer accumulate. As a result, your reports and dashboards will be more accurate—and the more useful data can lead to new reports and analyses that give you valuable new insights!
In the same way, consistent gift and contact entry means that fundraising leaders can be more confident that their reports are making progress, giving them more time for their own portfolios. Finally, maintaining audit reports (reports that identify where data rules aren’t being followed) and reviewing them regularly can help you identify clutter before it builds up.
It’s easy to let clutter build up, in your home and in your database. Often, you won’t realize how annoying it really is until it’s gone. Keep up your tidying and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions!