The Art of Database Management

The non-profit’s constituent database is a demanding partner.   She requires constant attention, a steadfast commitment of fidelity to the conventions of data entry and devotion to file integrity.  The database, if left unattended, can become an expensive source of anguish and despair – unreliable, inconvenient and irrelevant - ultimately leading to ridicule and abandonment.  

Database managers are like museum curators, acquiring, editing, and maintaining historically valuable artifacts.  They are entrusted with the stewardship of one of their organization’s most valued assets: information about stakeholders, constituents and donors.

Data entry is also an art – transforming the physical to the eternal.  A new event participant, sponsor, volunteer or donor is turned into a database record, which can remain a part of the non-profit for as long as the organization exists – perhaps even longer.  As artist and author Robert Henri observed, “There is no art without contemplation.”  It is vital that guidelines be clearly articulated for populating database fields and the appropriate thoughtfulness be applied to data entry.  Some important items to consider when managing constituent files:

  • If a database field is worth populating for some constituents, it is worth populating for all.  For example, everyone should be identified by constituent type, not just a select few.   Decide upon a relatively modest number of designations that are worth sorting on for invitations, solicitations or results reporting.  Board Member, Staff, Patient, Volunteer are constituent types that provide information that may not be easily retrievable from elsewhere in the database.  “Donor” is a wasteful constituent type because donations are easily queried and the fact that someone was once a donor is less important than the specifics of their giving history.
  • Be diligent in updating vital statistics on existing constituents.  We all understand the importance of identifying constituents who are deceased or have made specific solicitation requests like “DO NOT MAIL,” but be sure that your organization also has clear definitions for other designations, such as when to mark a record as “INACTIVE”.  For example, if an inactive constituent is one who hasn’t made a membership payment or gift in three years, then you can periodically run queries to identify them and update their records manually or via global changes.    
  • Finally, address those duplicate records - the bane of all constituent databases, especially when constituents can originate from several sources including events and on-line engagement.  I know it is not easy, but efforts must be made to query and merge duplicate records every three to six months.  As a result you will have a more representative database and avoid the cost and embarrassment of redundant invitations and solicitations.

With planning and diligence, the data artist will be able to stand back and admire a clean, relevant and beautiful masterpiece that benefits the entire organization.