Friday, August 15, 2014

Are Your Databases Asking You to Integrate?

Squealing brakes. Loose steering. Black exhaust.

The message from your car is obvious: “Tune me up!” Likewise, your donor management software, online giving application, volunteer management software and other systems have distinct ways of letting you know that they need to be integrated—or to at least talk to one another. Most organizations have reasonable explanations for keeping dispersed donor databases. The absence of integration, however, always makes itself known and can often manifest in not-so-happy ways.

If you recognize your organization or department in these indicators, your databases just might be telling you to make some connections:

You annoy donors

People give you money; ergo, they like you. But how do they feel if you misspell their name in an appeal letter? Call them by phone when they’ve told you they want email? Send event invitations to deceased family members? You probably already know the key reason for errors like these. They insinuate themselves into your data primarily when your organization houses donor information in multiple databases.

Really, we all know that effective management of one donor list is difficult enough without adding other, disconnected lists into the mix. The predictable result is disgruntled, irritated and disturbed donors. When your data sources don’t talk, you run the risk of hurting the relationships you most want to nurture--and of raising less money.

You leave opportunities hanging

If you have to jump through hoops to pull a project report for a major donor about his restricted giving, your organization’s relationship with that person can founder. If Visitor Services can’t identify members who are up for renewal when they enter the building, you lose the chance to increase your renewal rate.

Problems like this arise from fragmented data that hinders your ability to recognize trends or situations that can help fine-tune strategy. Ideally, your systems should help you answer hypotheticals like:
  • How will a high bounce rate affect donation levels from our email marketing efforts?
  • How do major donors behave once projects they supported are complete?
  • What is the effect on giving if we coordinate solicitations in our multichannel fundraising?
Getting answers to such queries requires painting a coherent picture from data that is probably stored in more than one system.

You protect your turf

Different departments all have distinct needs that their systems satisfy. The issue arises when these systems aren’t coordinated centrally. What if each department collects and enters data differently? If they have different standards for what qualifies as clean data? If donor or constituent ID numbers aren’t the same in every system? The result is that no one trusts anyone else’s data. Finance sniffs at data from the development department. Info from the volunteer coordinator’s office is suspect. Shadow databases in spreadsheets run amok. Further, no one wants to share their data because they fear it could be compromised in the process.
Department staff often cite their lack of confidence in others’ data quality as justification for keeping their data separate. As well, different departments inevitably need their own systems for various reasons. Finally, any effort to integrate databases is a highly technical, possibly time-intensive, project. These factors show why communication among systems is often lacking when it should be a priority. Achieving system integration and effective, consistent data management across an organization usually takes
  • a mandate from above (i.e., from upper management).
  • agreement among departments that cooperation and teamwork among staff should extend to their systems.
  • commitment from systems vendors that they will facilitate integration with their respective products. If you’re looking at a new system, ask vendors about their APIs, test environments and their history of collaborating with other vendors.

Though none of the above is easy, your donors—and your organization—deserve the right treatment. Don’t miss chances (or, worse still, harm good connections) because you can only see fragmented or less-than-complete pictures.  When the picture is disjointed or if getting the full picture takes undue effort, you miss opportunities and, again, harm relationships. The full view becomes possible only if your systems talk to one another.

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