Each non-profit organization has a need to communicate with donors, sponsors, and recipients of their support. In addition each organization needs to be able to report to a Board of Directors, State and Federal Government, and for more established non-profits’ national organizations..
Clean Data helps you to communicate more efficiently and more effectively. For example, your Board may ask you to report on how many donors are retained from two years ago. In this situation your data should show the identities of donors from two years ago, and then the identities of those who donated in the current year. With those lists you can match identities and you will have your answer. But what happens if the process you use to record identities is inconsistent?
Let’s use an example that can complicate your lives. My legal name is James John O’Reilley Jr. I prefer to be called Jim O’Reilley, so very few people know or care about my middle name or the fact that I am a Jr.. When I communicate with a charity to make a donation, I give my name as Jim O’Reilley, and that’s the name on the charitable contribution acknowledgement I receive back. So how do you keep track of this piece of data and how do you teach people who enter the data how to do it?
If you don’t have a process, and enforce it your data may be inconsistent, and reporting back to your Board can become a nightmare in time and effort. Let’s discuss first steps and limit the discussion to identifying people..
Most filing systems, manual or electronic begin with the last name,,,,and that could become your first problem. First the person who takes in the data must decide how to spell a person’s name. Without verification at this point, as in asking the person to spell their name, you can be off base right away. For example, most with my last name do not have an ‘e’ before the ‘y’ at the end. An apostrophe in the name can be a problem with electronic systems because in some computer languages an apostrophe means the end of a line of computer code. There is an easy solution if this is day one of your organization, make a rule about how names are to be entered and stick to it. If you already have data you need to find if it is consistent.
Once you decide how you are going to be consistent with your spelling, how do you find if there is an error with a name? Let’s chunk the problem down and keep it as simple as possible. To begin to help you to understand the benefit of technology, let’s assume that you now keep your information on spreadsheets as opposed to 3×5 cards. Your first step in consistent names is to sort your name data by last family name (as opposed to the Jr. example I used above). When you have sorted you will see many with the same last name, as in Smith. The next step is to sort the Smith’s by first family name (as opposed to Doctor, or Mrs.). You can now see all of those named Mary Smith. Do you have one Mary Smith, or several?
In most cases, without doing another sort you can look across the row of data and see if any of those named Mary Smith have the same contact address. If so, you may have duplicates, and you need to know that right away. We would also recommend that at this point you consider similar spellings of the same name, for example Maria or Smythe and examine the contact information for those names to see if you have more duplicates.
You see the problem with names, and you also see one of the reasons why you have so many returned pieces of mail or unanswered emails. The good news is that now you can begin to solve your problem by correcting the information, but where and how do you manage that?
Process for Organizing Data
We’ve now discussed the concept of Clean Data, and pointed out some problems you may have. Now let’s have a discussion about what you can do.
Your spreadsheet has many columns, and now you get to decide how to parse the information that you have and store it in such a way that is most efficient for you to use. As impersonal as this sounds, the first thing you want to do for each person is to assign them a number. Here’s why. Mary Smith may have first come in contact with your organization as a volunteer, then she became a donor, then a Board member. She admires your work so much that she has set up a family trust from which she can also make donations, and by the way, her company also helps out with fundraising events. If you keep track by function, as in all Board members are identified with a ‘B’,you will eventually lose track of the history of a very valuable person because with that system you will soon have Mary Smith in your ‘B’ list, your ‘V’ list and your ’D’ list. That system results in a constant effort to ensure that Mary receives the kind of communication you want her to receive, and not several requests for the same campaign.
So now Mary has a number, one with enough space to meet all of your future needs. Let’s say 000001. Next, we suggest you enter personal information beginning with the family Last Name, Smith. Then in separate columns, First Name, Middle Initial, Title (as in MD), family title (as in Jr. or III), Street Number, Street Name, Apt. or Unit Number, City or Town, State, Zip Code, Phone Number, Personal Email, Business Email. As you increase the number of columns you use, you will have entries for Years, with groups of columns with the ‘V’,’D’, and B’s we discussed above.
In future articles we will discuss how to maintain your data, how to make changes (as in someone relocates), and some very inexpensive software that can help you with all of this.
One of the things that NPTech Projects does is to help our clients evaluate, organize, and clean their data. Please don’t think that this is something you can put off. Nearly all non-profit organizations are either considering or are in the process of evaluating either brand new software or new releases of their current software (we do not sell software). One of the hidden costs of unclean data is that embedding it into updates or new products will only make the situation worse and make it much more difficult to fix. This costs you time and effort which distracts from your ability to focus on your organizational mission and strategy.
We hope this has been helpful to you, but please use the Comments section on this post to let us know.
If you are interested in our roundtable for executive directors, check out our article “What are Impact Circles? ” We still have seats available for the inaugural group. Send in your information!
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