How to Use Your Database to Ruin Productivity in 5 Easy Steps!

  1. Just Use Excel! Who Even Needs a Database!?

If you truly want to maximize the amount of time you spend on simple everyday tasks at your nonprofit, then don’t even bother using a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) database! Multiple Excel spreadsheets will do nicely.

The danger of investing in a CRM database is that you may discover their many uses beyond just increasing fundraising effectiveness. Many CRMs come with Moves Management and other task-tracking functions, not to mention built-in communications, like donor acknowledgement letters and mass email services to both send and track communications right from the software. Imagine missing out on the fun of performing manual mail merges, or the exciting guesswork of figuring out which spreadsheet is the most recent!

Sure, the helpful functions of Excel might accidentally speed up your work from time to time, but rest assured, you’ll still get to recreate the wheel each time you want to build a report, rather than having to use a CRM’s built-in reporting functions. And don’t even get me started on the joy of sticky-note-based task management!

  1. Make Sure Each Department Is Using Their Own Separate System

Some of you may be asking, “But what if we already have a pesky CRM database?” Don’t worry, you can avoid most of the benefits it offers by ensuring that only the fundraisers use it, while volunteer managers use spreadsheets, program staff use their own software, and the Executive Director just uses paper.

If you all use the same system, you may run into consistent and comprehensive data. And it’s not fair if only one person gets to enter a constituent’s information; you should each get the chance to enter the same data into your own program. Not only is that a more balanced approach, but you’ll also get to keep valuable information all to yourself! What if the fundraiser found out about that independently wealthy widow who loves your organization so much that she has been volunteering there every week for years?

Another obvious disadvantage of using the same system is that you may end up having all the activities of your organization show up on one report. Where’s the mystery in that? Also, if your communications are all in one place you might deny your constituents the opportunity to receive emails from twelve different people at your organization over the span of two days. That is a donor’s favorite thing in the world, and you should avoid taking it away from them.

  1. Try Not to Add Too Much Information

If you’re not sure if you’ll need to track your efforts by a particular metric, just leave it off! If you keep detailed information or carefully categorize everything in your database, then you’ll run the risk of having quick and efficient ways to search for and report on your data. But if you keep it to a minimum, you’ll enjoy countless hours of trying to add data after the fact, or enhancing reports from outside sources.

Even basic features, like organizing your fundraising into campaign and appeal hierarchies, are best if used as little as possible. Otherwise, you may have to face embarrassing situations like seeing which fundraising tactics aren’t working.

  1. Ignore the Features You Don’t Understand

It’s terrifying the amount of potential automation you may stumble upon in your database if you look too closely. You could find all kinds of witchcraft in there—from conditional merge letters that change by themselves to fit the situation, to auto-generated tasks that are spawned by various triggers and then latch themselves onto the appropriate staff member. No, it’s best to stay out of those dark corners.

And you just know that most CRMs are going to come with apps for our mobile devices. What are we, a bunch of Millennials? We don’t know how mobile devices work! Besides, you’re not going to want to have access to all that data when you’re on the go. That can wait until you’re back in the office.

It’s clear that the less you know about your CRM the better, so you should avoid the training and knowledge base offered by the company that makes it. And for the love of overtime, stay away from online user communities!

  1. Keep Your Processes and Procedures Secret

Don’t be discouraged if you’ve already failed at the first four steps. You can still limit your CRM’s usefulness by keeping your processes as vague and outdated as you can. Some organizations will actually create careful process documentation for their database, standardizing the way data is entered and retrieved. Sadly, those organizations end up saddled with best practices, wallowing around in consistent data all day, stuck with the monotony of the same workflow time after time.

But if you enjoy a good surprise, then don’t tell anyone how to enter data into your system. That way, you’re sure to find it stored in exciting and different ways each time you look for it! If you want to take four or five stabs at each query before you figure out how get to the data you need, then don’t let anyone make a record of the right way to do it! Allow everyone the experience of exploring the database on their own!

Now, if someone at your organization does go and write down your database’s procedures, at least be sure that no one gets the opportunity to reevaluate them for possible process improvements with any kind of regularity. With a little luck, those procedures will be out-of-date in no time, and you’ll be right back into the thrill of a brand new database experience every morning. And late into the night.

Photo credit: Stephen Hood

Jim Willsey
Community Relations Database Analyst
Jim is the Community Relations Database Analyst for HCA and its employee-run nonprofit the HCA Hope Fund. He has supported nonprofit organizations for over a decade, as a database administrator, fundraiser, and consultant.