September 12, 2012

The Challenges of Disparate Data in Nonprofits (and How to Overcome Them)

“Our data is scattered all across our organization!” Sound familiar?

As a consultant for the nonprofit sector, I hear it all of the time from clients. It was also one of the primary challenges I heard when interviewing 30 nonprofits for a recent study on Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) in the nonprofit sector.

When nonprofits talk about disparate data (or data “silos”), they’re usually referring to the use of multiple database systems at their organization. Often, this is the result of many years of adding specific systems to meet specific needs. Sounds harmless enough, right?  It might have been at the time…

But, when you want to focus on your constituents and how you can serve them better, scattered data can present several challenges. Here are just a few:

  • Data is difficult to keep synchronized. Sometimes information about an individual constituent is in more than one system. In this case, you’re not only missing the full picture of each constituent’s relationship with your organization, but you’re likely also sending multiple, uncoordinated messages from different departments to the same individuals. And they notice!
  • Differing practices for input and maintenance of data can create confusion. For example, if each department in your organization is using a different database to track constituent information, one department may think that “prefers email” means that they should send only email to a constituent, while another department may think it means “it’s ok to send direct mail if the mailing’s content isn’t available via email.” The result: constituents’ true preferences likely are not being met.
  • Each communication channel between you and your constituent can create its own dataset, creating even more disjointed information. As you add communication channels (such as direct mail, telephone, online, and social media) to your marketing mix, each channel’s system may create its own set of data, making it difficult to determine who responded to what campaign via what channel.

I could go on. But, my guess is that as a nonprofit professional, you’ve already seen these challenges and more. So, let’s talk about a possible solution: CRM.

While not a panacea, CRM systems have the potential to reduce many data challenges. Here are just a few of the ways that enlisting CRM technology (and the processes to support it) can help:

  • A CRM system can help you merge all information into a single database of record and ensure that you have a full picture of all of the various ways each constituent interacts with your organization. Analyzing this data can help you identify your strongest supporters, find the constituents most likely to supporter specific programs, and thank your supporters appropriately.
  • Reducing the number of databases where information is stored gives you the foundation for developing consistent processes for entering and maintaining constituent data. This can lead to more consistent and automated workflow and data cleansing practices, and encourages communication within your organization – which ultimately leads to more consistent and satisfying communications with your constituents.
  • Consolidating and analyzing information gives you insights to improve your strategies. For example, being able to track how your constituents are interacting with your organization through social media and other communication channels helps you determine which channels are most effective with which constituents so you can focus your resources appropriately.

No matter what your nonprofit’s situation, considering a move to a CRM system is worth the effort. It has the potential to help you break down process and data barriers and enable a more consistent, responsive and efficient approach to constituent communications.

After all, isn’t better serving your constituents what it’s all about?

Keith Heller
Keith Heller is Principal of Heller Consulting, a nation-wide firm that helps nonprofits streamline their operations and maximize their use of software to advance their missions. Before establishing Heller Consulting in 1996, Keith managed information and operations in the development office of The Exploratorium in San Francisco. Taking his know-how for both technology and nonprofit operations, he developed services for organizations using nonprofit software, and has personally worked with hundreds of organizations, large and small. Today, Heller Consulting has 25 employees with offices in San Francisco, Chicago and New York and has helped more than 800 nonprofits.