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Nonprofits often operate with lean teams and long hours, and donors and community members always come first. After completing the required recordkeeping to report to funders, board members, and other stakeholders, the last thing many want to do is to take additional time to clean a CRM. Yet unreliable data leads to haphazard decision making, can harm relationships with funders, and hinder your ability to implement your mission.
Meanwhile, it seems every day there are newer, faster software products to help nonprofits clean their outdated, error-ridden data management systems. These programs are described as digital magic wands to relieve your organization of invalid email addresses, duplicate records, improper formatting, and more. Sometimes a nonprofit may have the budget to hire data managers or consultants who can audit CRM data, but a clean, well-functioning CRM system shouldn’t require a fundraising campaign.
The contact record is the foundation of any CRM, and its value can become virtually obsolete overnight. Life changes like promotions, resignations, marriages, divorces, and relocations mean that the data integrity of your entire organization must be a regular practice.
Get motivated for some spring cleaning and embrace an internal data hygiene project. With the guidance below, you can make your action plan.
Data integrity must involve your entire team, not just a technical or administrative professional. No one person engages in all organizational contact. Start by creating an internal committee; ideally, a participant from each program area, including the executive and administrative staff.
Step 1: Take Inventory
You may think your team already has a data management strategy, but if you’re reading this, it’s likely that it needs some tweaking. Plan on documenting a comprehensive data strategy that maps every step from collection or intake to reporting, and revisit it annually. While data strategy is unique for each organization, here are three questions your team must answer to begin cleaning:
- 1. What data fields are necessary for our program staff? They could be name, title, organization affiliation, email, address or zip code, health status, conditions, birthdate, marital status, and others.
- 2. What data fields are necessary for reporting to our stakeholders? Think program participation, level of participation, time of intake, race and ethnicity, education level, income, employment status, etc.
- 3. What other data fields are we managing, and why?
Step 2: Stop the overflow
Once you’ve got a solid idea of what data should be in your CRM, it’s time to prevent data flow into your CRM that does not need to be there.
Consider minimizing points of entry. In our integration-obsessed society, we often love the idea of linking systems to make processes simpler, but we are left with the consequences of contact records which are hyper-managed in some systems, and loosely or unmanaged in others. Frequent, high-volume entry such as a ‘join our list’ sign up at an event creates a margin of error, that is then multiplied with the multiplication of systems a contact touches as it interacts with your organization.
Then, consider simplifying the overall number of data fields. Code tables and attributes can increase data entry speed, but also result in a lot of complexity. A common occurrence is that different users might enter a phone type as a “cell” or “mobile” phone because the system accepts both, when actually this redundancy makes running reports unnecessarily complicated.
Step 3: Restructure data entry points
Alerts—either via e-mail or upon login—are standard features in most CRM systems. You want your system alerts to deploy at the onset of entry.
Create a “to review” check box in contact profiles. The alert is sent in real time and timestamped, allowing the team to sort through and prioritize records based on age— this means there are fewer questions as to where the issues are.
In some cases, teams opt to create workflows within a CRM, mandating (or preventing) certain entries at the onset of data entry, but be mindful: often workflows can disincentivize data management. When it takes 10 minutes to enter a contact record, it becomes a struggle to perform, and will often go unfulfilled.
Create a “last review date” field in plain sight. By putting a new date in this field each time, the contact is updated, you can easily sort through contacts that may need updating. You can also get a sense of what percent of the CRM database is updated and how often it’s being reviewed. Plan to update contact profiles at least once every six months.
Step 4, Option 1: A systematic overhaul
Identify the biggest culprit of bad data within your CRM. Are there inconsistent naming conventions, misspellings, missing values, duplicate records, embedded values (multiple values in one field)? Perhaps the CRM itself is riddled with glitches or incorrect dependencies, such as a donor and a company. If you’re unsure, ask around: chances are your team has a good understanding of data issues based on their programmatic function.
Next, run a query on this culprit (or create a list) and have each member of the data cleaning committee set aside a block of time to clean a segment of it.
Step 4, Option 2: Start small and steady
Rather than cleaning up existing data at once, a smaller team may prefer to use key points of entry where major interactions occur, to designate time for cleaning up the CRM data. To begin, decide which opportunities exist to update your database in the course of business. Some ideas our nonprofits have used include:
- When sending mass emails – Update once per month
- When you plan to send out emails to a large group of people, set aside time in advance for a team member to manage the replies. Any email sent to more than 50 people is likely to garner a response saying that the contact either moved or has a new title or email address. Put those changes into the CRM as they come in.
- When meeting with donors/stakeholders – Update no more than twice per year
- Whenever you’re setting up a new meeting with someone, take the opportunity to compare the information in their email signature with their information in your CRM. At the same time, even if you haven’t made any changes, update the “last review date” field so that you can pull the profile out of your cleanup pile.
- When sending annual reports, following up after an event, or other milestone for your organization.
Regardless of your approach you must complete Step 4 with an internal debrief. What was the most challenging part of the cleanup process? How might you better proceed next time? Do you think the team can manage two or three of these projects in a given fiscal year? Come to an agreement about goal setting in this area and make your progress known to the organization at-large. Remember to regularly report on your CRM’s contact and account data, and ensure such reports are part of regular meetings. Ensure you can observe the number of updates required by the staff member(s) and that you make it an action item for that staff member.
Step 5: Innovate and train to sustain
Finally, consider investing in tools that provide real-time data. Today’s workforce is more transient than ever. Between people changing jobs and organizational changes, contact data is a fluid asset rather than a fixed one. Contact data expires as time passes, to the tune of about 32% per year (according to SiriusDecisions).
Invest in tools to bring new accounts to your attention: adding accounts to your system is as important as maintaining existing ones.
Then, train, train, and train some more! Anyone with access to your organization’s CRM should know how to use it independently and proficiently. We should never expect software to solve a lack of strategy, communication, or fix broken business processes. Mandate training for your team on data entry and for the constituent records they will work with most frequently.
Cleaning our CRMs can be far less overwhelming than we might expect. Someday soon you’ll be able to say that your CRM:
- Works in conjunction with good data strategy
- Can detect and remove inconsistencies
- Does not rest on the shoulders of a single individual within the organization