During a recent bout with the flu, my partner marathon-watched the new reality show, “Tidying Up” where Marie Kondo (notable home organizing and de-cluttering consultant) uses her signature “does this item bring me joy?” approach to help families re-arrange their homes.
Meanwhile, I happened to see this image making its rounds on social media, with the cheeky subtitle, “an archivist’s answer to our generation’s desire for many tabs!” (by the way, speaking of many tabs, you should check out my series on digital self care if you haven’t already!)
And if that’s not enough inspiration, I read a brilliant essay this week by Cynthia Cullen where she addressed “information overload” — and that was back in 1996! Archiving is great, but what use are archives if they are unsearchable. Worse yet, what if there is too much information on a topic. Or two little? Really this is a situation of Goldilocks and the Right Amount of Data.
Yet again, I was facing an existential question that could only be properly answered with a well-designed spreadsheet (and data integrity/retention strategy).
Track and field (#PunIntended)
Every time we make a spreadsheet or configure a database, we have to make tough decisions about what information we want to keep track of. There’s the obvious things, like Name and Email. And then there’s the optional stuff. Title? Address? Well, it depends on if you’re going to send them mail, or segment your events into geographies. Interest areas? Last donation amount? Years involved with the organization? I can see how all of these COULD be worthwhile. Then again, if you don’t actually TRACK the information, then it’s not doing much good to clutter your system with superfluous data. Here’s the rationale that I use to justify creating new spreadsheet columns or database fields.
- Who enters these data? (nothing’s worse than a column that has never been updated with any data!)
- Who updates these data? (stale data is worse than stale popcorn)
- Who takes action based on these data? (or – how will these data be used? running reports? mail merge? other metrics?)
- Who sets goals around these data? (sometimes you collect information to be able to report to another channel, like a funder or a committee, even if no action is required. Who is setting goals or expecting updates?)
If your answer to two or more of these prompts is “no one” then you probably don’t need the data. If the answer to these prompts is “man, we should really figure this you” then you’re in the right place, and you’re in good company. No judgement!
Let’s look at a few examples…
- Who enters these data? Either fundraising/development staff or volunteers. In some cases, the donor themself, if they are giving through an online portal where they provide contact information. In some cases, there is an outsourced firm that does “gift entry” and goes through all the mail, cashing checks and entering donor data into the database system.
- Who updates these data? Oftentimes, the answer is NO ONE and the data can fall into disrepair! I recommend going through all of your contacts every November and February (before and after the donation/annual report rush). In some rare cases, organizations can use technology like FormAssembly pre-fill to send Contacts a peak at the data you have on file, and give them an opportunity to update as they see fit.
- Who takes action? Fundraisers! They need donor contact information and donor history to make well-informed fundraising pitches!
- Who sets goals? Each other!, fundraising staff, Development Director, or the Board.
- Who enters these data? Staff, volunteers, or constituents when they sign up for activities
- Who updates these data? Primarily staff or volunteers
- Who takes action? Primarily staff (running reports, managing outreach)
- Who sets goals? Everyone! Senior staff? Board members?
Contact tracking is where I tend to see folks get into hot water, tracking all kinds of wacky things that are impossible to keep up with, and are irrelevant for future research. For example, we had a way to track whether our contacts were Local, Regional, National, or Other. The question is… what’s the criteria for that? When does it even get populated? And, when do you we take action based on that info? Do we have the capacity to send different emails to local versus national partners? What if someone would be considered both… which email would win?
It’s important to not only “scrub” your contact attributes, but also your contacts on their own terms. We have contacts in our system who are out of date, who have changed jobs, or who have (in some rare cases) even passed away. Maybe in a fundraising organization you keep track of people who are no longer with us (for example, if they left a bequest), but certainly not in an operations focused environment!
Frequently when I work with community groups, I will see spreadsheet columns like “Follow up” and then text like “I followed up, check in after 2 weeks have passed” with no indication of WHO did the follow up and WHEN. Months or years later, this is completely unhelpful information and the best thing is to delete it.
Uh oh, I’m getting away from myself. What Marie Kondo would say is, “thank the [data] for accompanying you on your journey, and then say goodbye.” And she is nicer, more calm, and less impulsive than I am.
Friends near and far, good luck on your data “tidying” journey! If you are having trouble deciding what data should be stored in your system, feel free to comment below, or send me an email!
PS – for Salesforce users, it’s easy to use an app called “Field Trip” to see fiends that haven’t been populated or updated in a long time!