[Image description: Pen and ink floral design with a banner that says “Welcome New Followers!”]

Hello pals, and extra big welcome to new followers who are jumping aboard the TDAA train after I hosted a webinar for grantmakers last week! I’m honored to convene this corner of the internet. I write about databases and spreadsheet tips here, drawing from experiences in my personal and political life. This blog is not a reflection of my employer and I usually don’t write about work! Ok, with that out of the way ….

Circle time

It’s a Saturday afternoon and our bellies are full of bagels. It’s the Before Times when we can still gather at in-person events. This event is part of my synagogue. We are outside in the vestibule between two buildings, where we’ve installed a temporary structure called a Sukkah (like a canopy or a tent) for the holiday of Sukkot. Since this is the time of year where we have (1) absorbed the biggest number of new people, because it falls right after Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur and (2) the holiday is specifically themed around hospitality, this is a perfect time to host a New Member Orientation. Come on over and pull up a chair around the fire pit so that we can get to know each other!

Let’s just take a moment to normalize being new,” explains my friend, SL. “As a new person, it’s easy to feel like everyone else (except you!!) is well connected and you’re the only new one. But that’s just not true. We usually have at least 25% new people! You’re in good company with lots of other folks who are new to the community, and want to get to know you!”

This is perhaps the most transformative part of the New Member experience. There is something magical about mythbusting assumptions about isolation. You might think you’re the only one, but you’re super not! And all of this was before I had heard of the term “social distancing.” Alas, here we are.

the data are not alright

I spend a lot of time supporting an organization that is dedicated to providing high quality adult learning opportunities in jails, prisons, and correctional facilities. They connect college students with tutoring opportunities and work 1:1 or in small groups with incarcerated students. While their programs are on an unanticipated hiatus, we decided to embark on a data cleanup journey, going back about 2 years. I did a bunch of reflection to collaboratively develop specific, strategic, and empowering instructions for this task. These generally fell along two central themes:

  1. Describing how each datapoint was connected to mission
  2. Explaining that data cleanup was normal, not born of shame

In this blog post, I want to focus on the second point.

Datacleaning is normal

I think a lot of us hold a lot of shame for having a “data junk drawer”, for not having all of the tools/skills/structures to keep data clean all the time, for admitting that things have fallen into a bit of disrepair, for being overwhelmed and procrastinating on the inevitable. I’m here to say, it’s ok if you have some messy data. It’s not a personal failure. Many of us inherited data from previous generations of staff, legacy systems, or just an old way of doing things. Data cleaning often gets de-prioritized because of time-sensitive, mission-critical things – and more often than not, I think that’s the right decision. Most grassroots groups are underresourced and datacleaning takes TIME, especially if most of it is happening without “spreadsheet magic.” And let’s be honest, spreadsheet magic takes time, too. I’m not here to lecture you like the dentist!

Sidenote, my dentist recently told me that I should spend 30-40 minutes PER DAY on my dental hygiene…. after she said a bunch of blamey-shamey-guilt inducing insults about my brushing/flossing technique (or lack thereof). Blech! This is exactly the opposite of how I want people to feel when it is data-cleaning o’clock!

Unlike time spent flossing, I think datacleaning can actually be enjoyable. I like putting on great tunes and working my way through a spreadsheet, where I can really see progress. (Then again… that’s probably why I’m in this line of work…). I also like re-acquainting myself with people in our systems and honoring their generosity. I appreciate the opportunity to revisit records that may have become out of date just as a function of time passing, and updating professional affiliations, nicknames, communication preferences, pronouns, etc for everyone who participates in regular programming or email blasts. (Dentists and doctors, by the way, update data every time you go to the office by making you fill out forms… changemakers… not so much!) If you are sympathetic to the premise that nurturing/maintaining data is one of many parts of an organization’s mission, it can take the resentment, procrastination, and perfectionism away from the task and instead endow it with purpose and empowerment.

We can either normalize data cleanup or we can normalize data

When I pull data for reports, dashboards, evaluation, grant proposals, etc, I sometimes spend quite a bit of time updating data so that I can create better summaries. Things like combining “PA” and “Pennsylvania” or making scales that are comparable (1-5, where 1 is “boo” and 5 is “yay”). This process is often called “Normalizing” data. And as much as I’m a nonconformist in my personal life, a well organized, “normalized” spreadsheet of survey responses (for example) is a Thing of Beauty!

I’ve seen a lot of organizations and individuals make datacleanup into a scarier, shame-ier thing than it has to be. The end result is that we end up cleaning the data on the “other side” once the data come out of the system and we are prepping the results for an external audience. Personally, I’d rather clean everything on the front end!

Let’s go back to the campfire circle that I shared in the beginning of this post. These are some of the other themes that we like to share during New Member Orientation: It can be super threatening to make a new commitment. You might feel like the only one. You might not know exactly how the systems work. You might think everyone else has it all figured out. You might have anxiety or shame or procrastination. You might have a prior bad experience that is holding you back. Listen, I’m not trying to say that joining a synagogue and cleaning a spreadsheet are the same. (Really, at first I only introduced this example because I wanted to make a pun with the word “normalize”…) But there are some common emotional reactions that emerge when we are contemplating things that are intimidating – and it’s much, much better to talk about them!

Let’s talk about how intimidating data cleanup can be! It’s not just you, it’s a whole system of mansplaining guides, high stakes learning (like rushing to get an appeal out the door), tediousness, embarrassment (how did things get so bad?), overwhelm, etc that contribute to this activity having a terrible reputation.

Believe me, I have complete understanding for why you might not want to tackle that data junk drawer. That being said, I believe there are friendly, empowering, efficient ways to move through a data cleaning process. The first step is a mindset shift from thinking “we have already failed at this aahhhhhhh!” to “this is a normal, friendly, empowering way to take good care of our community!” Let’s normalize data cleanup so we don’t have to normalize data.

Have you tried out this approach? I’d love to hear in the comments about your journey! Or if you’d like to see some tangible next steps, be in touch and I can write a follow-up blog post. Either way, I know deep down that we’re all in this together and I appreciate all that y’all are doing to maintain good data in the face of many competing priorities. Go you!

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