44140256_10105098065507704_6173732067403104256_nLast weekend, my dear friend Kaytee took me to a cookie decorating class and I learned the ins and outs of “royal icing” which is a special variety of frosting that has stiff egg whites in it, allowing it to keep its shape and dry “crunchily” a bit like meringue.  We were guided in this process by instagram cookie decorating superstar @hanielas, who was kind, directive, encouraging, and super creative.

While we rested our eyes from squinting at cookie patterns, and while we shlepped more than an hour home from the class, we had plenty of time to talk about our social justice work.  We both volunteer with the environmental justice organization the Earth Quaker Action Team, but one of the things that makes our friendship so fun is that we each volunteer with other groups, too, like the Jess King for Congress campaign and Amplify.

Consistency is key!

15cooking-royalicing-articlelargeOur gracious instructor, Hani, must have spent untolled hours preparing for our cookie workshop, from baking our perfectly smooth buttercookies to whipping royal icing and coloring it, to separating it into runny, medium, and thick textures, transferring it to piping bags, and assembling a hodge podge of additional cookie decorating supplies, including wax paper, stencils, toothpicks, thumbtacks, frosting eyes, cookie glitter, paintbrushes, and more.

The most important lesson that I learned is that cookie decorating comes back to consistency.  The frosting can’t be too liquidy, and it can’t be too firm.  It has to be juuuuust right to be spreadable, yet hold it’s shape.  Stable, yet able to be mixed.  Thick enough for a generous layer, but thin enough to build extra layers on top.  There are so many places where things can go wrong!

From consistency to standardization

(Yes, this is where I apply the metaphor of frosting to spreadsheet fundamentals!)  From frosting that immediately drips off of the cookie to frosting that is so stiff you can’t get it out of the bag…

From spreadsheets that are so descriptive that they are like reading a novel to databases that are so strict that your constituents just turn into statistics…

There’s a happy medium to be found.  Or as Hani showed us, sometimes you need to work at all levels, with a soft, medium, and thickest icing, each deployed for specific cookie decorating purposes.

The great thing about cookie decorating is that whether you are an amateur or a professional, it’s FUN and the results are delicious.  Don’t let being a beginner keep you from decorating your cookie… and eating it too!  The same is true with your spreadsheets.  With a few small tweaks, you can be well on your way to sweet, sweet spreadsheet bliss!

In spreadsheets (and databases for that matter), one of the BEST and simplest things you can do to improve your data is to strive for standardization.  As I said in a meeting this morning, you need to decide if you’re going with “NJ” or “New Jersey” – if you put in both, it’ll always be difficult to search by state!  But this goes way beyond addresses (though if you want to read more of my thoughts on address data, you can read them here)!

Recipe for spreadsheet standardization

Spreadsheet cake!  (No, I didn’t make it)

Yield:  one awesome spreadsheet!

Perfect for small organizations or grassroots groups just getting started!  Or just getting started with some data clean up 🙂  Highly recommended with a side of social justice!


  • 1 Excel doc or Google Sheet
  • You and several other people
  • The information you need to track, organized into rows and columns
  • Data validation tool (easier than it sounds!)
  • Patience and persistence!


forms_512dpIf you have a TON of data entry to do, consider making a Google Form for you and your comrades to fill out.  You can add additional instructions to it and help people understand what belongs in each box.  You can even make “drop down” menus (which you can also do in the spreadsheet itself, but it’s more user friendly in the form version) AND you can make all questions (columns) required.  Then, when you look at the data in the Spreadsheet version, it will be more uniform!

ui_dropdownexampleopenLook at each column in your spreadsheet.  If it is descriptive or narrative, move on.  If it’s something that you MIGHT like to sort or filter one day, it’s time to identify how you’d like to standardize the information.  A really good red flag is a column name like “Status” (or something along those lines).  “Statuses” should always be limited to a few options, with a separate column for additional explanation.  The best way to do this within a spreadsheet (if you’re not going the Form option from above) is with data validation!  Choose from a list of options (for example “Not started” “In progress” “Waiting on someone else” “Complete”) instead of everyone writing in their own version.  It’s not as scary as it sounds to set it up, trust me!

kisspng-relational-database-management-system-database-sch-database-5abe2d1b1bce30-3430359715224128271139If you have a LOT a LOT a LOT of information (and you start having columns past Z or you start making columns for Call 1, Call 2, Call 3, etc), you might be outgrowing what you can do in a simple Google Sheet.  In general, I recommend looking at Air Table (another online spreadsheet option a bit similar to Google Sheets.  After a certain limit it is no longer free, but almost definitely less expensive than a full-fledged database).  Air Table lets you link rows in different spreadsheets together!  So for example, you could have a list of people and a list of court dates, and you can connect them to each other with a lookup.  Then, when you look at a Person, you see all of their court dates.  And when you see a Court Date, you can see which people are related.  This gets into relational database territory – for more on that, read my post here.

yankee_yaff16_filter_funnel_16_oz_with_63608Filter out data that doesn’t need action – this is a truly revolutionary tip.  You’ll always want to have a “view all” option, but most days, most of the time, you’re in there because you need to do followup (or identify followup needed!).  This will save you from the headache of scrolling through all of the people who’s names start with A everytime you need to get something simple done.  And it’ll help you use your spreadsheet to make better decisions and achieve your mission by identifying the rows (People!) you really need to spend time with.  When you’re done, you can mark your status as “Complete” and keep moving.  Standardization is key!!  Especially if you are sharing a list of contacts with more than one person.  And I would hope you are, so all of the work isn’t on one person’s shoulders 🙂

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