“Shadow databases” are a very common problem in the advancement industry. Whether data is stored in home-built MS Access databases, third-party CRM systems, or just Excel files, having some of your institution’s data stored anywhere other than the database of record poses a number of obvious challenges:
- Limited access to useful information
- Biographical data not being updated everywhere
- Incomplete picture of constituents.
It’s item #3 I’d like to address in particular, given my focus on data-driven fundraising. In order to use data most effectively to drive strategic advancement outcomes, the data must be accurate – that goes without saying! When data is spread out in multiple locations, it’s just about impossible to keep it up to date everywhere, and this compromises the overall quality.
When key data are not stored in the system of record, which reduces the “completeness of the picture,” your ability to do data-driven fundraising can be even further compromised. Consider one of the most rampant cases of “shadow data:” Events. A tremendous number of institutions fail to track some (or, sometimes, any whatsoever!) of their event data in the CRM system of record. There are various reasons. Some CRM systems offer limited capability, but in quite a few cases, it’s due to lack of training and/or a lack of commitment to ensuring that event data are properly captured. It takes some effort to get it all into the database, and instead it often languishes in spreadsheets.
From a data-driven fundraising perspective, event data are extremely useful. Event attendance almost always shows a strong statistical correlation with giving, so if you don’t have accurate, accessible event information, you cannot include that data in any efforts to predict giving.
So I say, stop tracking your events in spreadsheets, if you have the necessary tools to track them in your fundraising system. Get professional assistance, if necessary, to help you figure out how best to do it, to train your staff, and to develop consistent policies and business rules for managing event data.
Brandon Ferris, Senior Director of Strategic Services and Fundraising Counsel