What’s the big deal about rogue databases? This is the second post in a short series I’m writing on Rogue Databases: those spreadsheets and contact files that exist outside of your “official” database. Last time, we listed some of the reasons rogue databases keep cropping up. In this post, we’ll cover a few ways they can hurt you, and benefits of controlling them.

How rogue databases hurt you

In general, rogue databases can lead to wasted resources and missed opportunities. Here are a few ways this can take shape:

  • Wasted time duplicating data entry and maintaining lists. You can drive yourself crazy trying to keep your main database or CRM up to date, while also entering everything into a spreadsheet you use for reporting, or maintaining a copy of the list in event management or email blast software. Equally frustrating is trying to combine multiple lists into one for a mailing, without sending any household more than one mail piece.
  • Not knowing which record to trust. When someone’s contact info is listed differently in two places, you don’t know which one to rely on, and trust in the data management system is undermined. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: no one updates the database because no one updates the database.
  • Lost institutional memory. When a staff member leaves, or a computer dies, the secret lists they kept often disappear too. Historical information about key relationships and activities is incomplete.
  • Keepers of rogue databases put up barriers to the data. “If you want to know who sat at Mr. X’s table at the fundraising gala, you have to ask Anne.” The barriers are not always intentional, but they do slow things down.
  • Missed opportunities. By keeping rogue databases, you are missing out on the benefits of sharing data.

How integrating/consolidating can help

The main argument for data integration, in the nonprofit sector, is to obtain a 360 degree view of constituents and all the roles they play. If you look me up in your database, ideally you want to see how I originally came into contact with your organization, my giving history, communication I’ve received, events I’ve attended, and any other interaction or other data you have on me. Having this all in one place sounds nice, right? But what does it get you?

The 360 degree view helps you identify opportunities. Who is most engaged? Who is ripe for upgrade to a higher level of giving? Equally important, who is at risk? If you have everything in one place, you can look at all the different ways people are and are not engaging with your organization, find patterns, and then take appropriate action.

Second, as a practical matter, consolidating or integrating your databases and lists streamlines your work. There are less systems to learn and support, less resources spent transferring and normalizing data, and more time freed up for doing the real work of your organization. It’s about efficiency.

Third, bringing those rogue databases into the fold means everyone can access the data they need to do their job, and there are no more secrets. Of course, there can be risks and challenges to sharing. Watch for tips on managing a shared database, in a future post.

For every rule, there’s an exception

Integrating rogue databases is often worth the effort – but not always. Here are some good reasons not to do it:

  • Minimal overlap between constituencies. I see this most often in social service agencies, where service recipients and donors/volunteers are often separate universes.
  • Privacy concerns. For example, if your organization tracks sensitive information or is required to use HIPAA compliant data management practices, it might make sense to restrict access to certain data, or completely separate it from your main database.
  • Hassle of integrating outweighs the benefit. Maybe you have two best-in-class software tools that don’t get along. One does exactly what you need for donor management, and the other does exactly what you need for volunteer management, but they don’t easily integrate. When you need to do an email fundraising appeal, just import the volunteer email list, and you’re good to go.

In conclusion, there are lots of reasons to consolidate or integrate your rogue databases, but it’s not always the right solution. What has your experience been like? How was a rogue database hurting you, and what did you gain by eliminating it?

In this series…

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