Data Hygiene: It Does A Growing Org Good

Tell me if you recognize this scenario: your nonprofit’s finally got legs, the membership is growing, your community visibility is up, the media’s paying attention, you have a steady revenue stream–your effort is finally bearing fruit!

But for all the influx of people and volunteer hours, you’re not yet at the point where your financials can support a comprehensive enterprise data management system where you can keep proper track of all the members, and volunteers, and donors, and possible donors. Which means your precious data is in several different places––Excel spreadsheets, Word tables, a dropbox account here, a Google Doc there. You don’t have to plan for redundancy, it’s just the norm with you––har!

And you know that it’s just a matter of time before something gets improperly updated, in the wrong document. So, what is a nonprofit to do?

Two words: data hygiene.

Hat tip for being introduced to that seemingly magical (and not well enough known) term to the wise Pete Miller who advises creative non-profits and blogs at, and has advised one of my creative nonprofit clients. Although there’s no real magic. Just near obsessive and vigilant organization of data. Because sanity and reportable progress lies in keeping your data organized, in making sure that all the names and numbers lead to one updated place or trusted person at all times.  Here’s why:

Swapping MOO and business Cards
Yay! Success! Only, you have several volunteers who also got cards for you. What now? (via Mecca Ibrahim)

Version 2.Huh?

It makes sense that growth produces an influx of data–– more people, more email addresses, more addresses, donor levels, more success. A good thing!

But it’s precisely when the success starts to gather steam that record keeping can get delegated so the founder can continue to lead, with data inadvertently taking a hit. And it usually happens despite the best of intentions. The pieces of paper where interested people leave email addresses at an unexpectedly successful event, the bowl of business cards that ended up in someone’s car and never make it back to the board meeting . . . sound familiar?

Insisting that all incoming data must go to one record keeper—weekly, for instance—can avoid this confusion.

But I Thought You Were A Volunteer?

In addition to a muddled picture, improperly maintained data can put you at risk of undermining hard-earned good will. It’s not unusual for the most dedicated volunteers and community supporters to also be your first donors. But if you don’t have a way to centrally track them all, you risk being the non-profit that doesn’t properly track or thank funders. Or worse, you end up asking the volunteer to write himself his own thank you. Oh yes, that happens. It can be funny when you’re a really small organization with a collegial board that does everything including fill seats. But it stops being funny real fast as you get bigger.

By The Numbers

As organizations grow, particularly nonprofits, your data hygiene helps paint a detailed picture of growth and successes. How rapidly have you grown? Has an increase in membership translated into a commensurate increase in meeting your organization’s mission? What does your growth trajectory look like? Is your revenue stream keeping up? How do you pull those numbers for proposals, partnerships, and grant opportunities? All the data in one place can help you pull those numbers and flesh out a more convincing picture, the kind that makes a funder think, “Yeah, they’ve done their homework.”

Movin’ On Up

This is probably the most key reason to maintain data hygiene: Properly maintained, up-to-date data transports and translates easier and quicker into bigger digs. Eventually––if the planets align and funding is secure––a nonprofit outgrows the free software. You get to a point where you can afford a more comprehensive toolkit, and should migrate your organization’s information so you can parse it better. And moving day is always easier when you’re better organized. 🙂

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