A Spreadsheet Does Not a Database Make

BY ANNE MELTON

When I lived in a small, rural college town as a bright-eyed and newly-minted nonprofit professional, I frequented a coffee stand that had an irritatingly astute slogan plastered on the wall behind the barista that was not quite out of the customer’s line of vision:

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

I’m sure this authoritative message was intended to remind the ever-transient student work force that their manager was paying attention, but it also (clearly) had an effect on me and often pops into my head when I try to take shortcuts (usually on house chores) that I’ll likely pay for later. More on this in a minute.

I’ll be honest: I have a love/hate relationship with databases. When done right, they can be incredibly powerful tools in helping you maximize your time, relationships, and decision-making. When data is neglected, your database, or data tracking mechanism, can be a complete time suck and source of seemingly endless frustration resulting in hair-pulling and expletives.

When it comes to data tracking mechanisms, many organizations often turn to an Excel spreadsheet to log important information like donor contact and donation history. That’s great! That critical information is being captured! However, trouble can very quickly start brewing when the organization begins to grow and grow, making the spreadsheet bigger and bigger, becoming more complex and cumbersome. Beyond the complexity of the information you’re trying to include, there’s also other lurking problems: there are often multiple people accessing your spreadsheet, all with different styles of shorthand, and each person saving different versions under different file names, on different devices, with the ever-present danger that the file will crash and you’ll lose it all. Or you’ll lose the most updated version and have to go back to an old version and try to figure out where it all went wrong. No. Fun. Whatsoever. While a spreadsheet is a great start, they are intended for “flat” information (i.e. tracking few and simple data points).

Databases on the other hand, are beautiful and complex (yet often surprisingly user-friendly!) engines for documenting the relationships, engagement, and history between constituents and your organization. They help to safeguard your data’s integrity. This is your organization’s life blood and ensures that your information will work for you for years to come. With a database, your data can tell a story about what’s working and what isn’t. A spreadsheet can’t.

So now back to that slogan that is just so irritatingly true: do it right the first time, and from the beginning. Haven’t yet? Start now. The second (sooner is even better!) you realize that you are trying to document and discover relationships between your data points, that’s when it’s time to put your information into a database. Believe it or not, there are cost-effective and web-based solutions (my favorite is Little Green Light) that are data powerhouses that manage a few hundred to several thousand records.

You were called to this work to fulfill a mission and make the world better. I get that data entry and tracking may be the last thing that you want to do—there is work to be done! —but your data is the foundation of your support system. So track your donations, track your constituents, and make sure you do it as completely and accurately as possible, providing as much available detail while it is fresh in your brain, and do it on a regular basis. Think you’ll definitely remember the date you sent out that solicitation letter? You won’t. Certain that you can rattle off your top 10 donors? Don’t risk it. Do it now and do it right. Your future self (or colleague) will thank you!

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Anne Melton is a research and data enthusiast with more than a decade of experience in nonprofit program management and has worked for Planned Parenthood, the College Success Foundation, the Northwest African American Museum, and The Museum of Flight.

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