Getting Forward to Normal: The Need for Digital Infrastructure
If we've learned one thing from the pandemic, it's don't take medical advice on Facebook from Craig, the kid who used to cheat off your paper in biology, even if he's "done the research."
But if we've learned two things from the pandemic, it's that we can live without the office, but we can't live without a digital connection.
And yet, think about our investments of time and energy in each. There may have been more debate over what color to paint your building's accent wall than over what happens if the one person who knows how to fix the email server is out for an extended time, possibly because he listened to Craig.
Some of the former debate is merited — “Honestly, Gladys, I don't care if taupe is soothing; it's too much like the regular wall color to be an accent wall!” But too often our digital infrastructure is like the plumbing, in that, we only notice it when it goes awry.
This is a pity. A robust digital infrastructure isn't just about what it can't do when it's gone; it's about what it can do to make your life easier when it is there. So, now that the “taupe debate” is less important, here are some critical areas to focus on for your digital infrastructure.
The Truth Database
It's understandable to start by having data in different places. Your volunteer database started with a separate goal and purchasing manager from your event system, which may be separate from your online donation system. I once worked with an organization that had 20 different national office databases (technically data systems, because some of them were in Excel or — gasp — Word and thus not real databases).
The challenge with systems like this is you cannot get to the capital “T” Truth of any one donor. This makes even the simplest operations difficult. Let's say you recognize $1,000-plus donors in your annual report. Should a person who gave $500 each through a walk, your national office, a local office and a special event be in that report? Yes. Will they be if you can't harmonize your data systems? No.
And we are long past the days when it's expected that you wouldn't know everything about a person. We live in a world where our competitors — the people who want you to buy things instead of giving your money away — not only know what you had for breakfast, but what that means you'll likely want for lunch.
Each bit of data is vital. A recent Bank of America study of wealthier donors found that people who volunteered with an organization gave more than twice as much per year as those who didn't. So if you are doing major and mid-level donor outreach or even ask strings without having your volunteer file hooked up to your donor database, you are missing out.
There must be a Truth database that holds all your people, all donations and all the constituent knowledge. This database will be the arbiter of all fights between other databases. This is a necessary precondition of donor knowledge. You will not have true knowledge of a constituent if all your data isn’t all in one place.
You can start by purging unnecessary databases. I did this to pair down the 20-database organization, killing off databases as if they were weekend houseguests in an Agatha Christie novel. If another database can do what this one can with modifications, or if people can do without the additional functionality, purge it. The choice of words here is intentional; it should be as if this database displeased Stalin, disappearing from history incorporated into other people's stories.
But some backend systems have a purpose. For those, they should have a two-way sync with your Truth database. If this database must exist, it must at least give share its secrets.
As it is with your data, so should it be with your people — each able to connect with each other so you can get to some form of your truth.
This isn't just turning your conference calls into video calls. It's about replicating important types of interactions. For urgent, I-need-to-drop-by-and-get-a-quick-answer interactions, there's instant messaging, group chats or platforms, like Teams or Slack. For serendipitous conversations, the breakout features of most video conferencing software now allows you to create random groups for discussions. And (perhaps most important for an introvert like me) the smart use of do-not-disturb notes can help you get the think or focus time that you can experience at an office with a closed door and a scowl.
We're seeing the need for redundancy with supply chains all over the world. We transcended lean and mean, and are now emaciated and ticked off.
The same is true with technology when it comes to both its platforms and people. No one person should have the only keys to any kingdom. And organizations need to continue to function if a facility, state or company shuts down.
This isn't just a matter of technical savviness. When Facebook went down a few weeks ago, it had trouble recovering because all of its tools for communicating with each other were built on —wait for it — Facebook. In a world where the previously unthinkable is now commonplace, we need to have contingency plans that include things like a backup email address, backup admins and backup systems. In the same way that we used to protect ourselves if the office caught fire, we must now protect our digital lives, not barricade the fire exits because our building has never caught fire before.
All of these things require investment in time and treasure. In many cases, you will have partners who can help you. For example, you likely already have partners in direct marketing who are cleaning your data for merge/purge; why not enlist them in getting that clean data back into the Truth database?
But the central point is we now know it's worth it. We don't have digital lives or digital work anymore; we just have lives and work that transcend location and medium. We need to make the investment to plumb the pipes to make this life possible and valuable.
Editor's Note: This is the fourth part of the six-part series, Getting Forward to Normal.
Getting Forward to Normal
Part 1: What Ketchup Packets, Yeast and Nonprofit Mail Pieces Have in Common
Part 2: The Road Ahead for Museums and Cultural Institutions
Part 3: A Bump in the Road for Monthly Giving
Part 4: The Need for Digital Infrastructure
Part 5: Understanding What Business Nonprofits Are In
Part 6: The 2022 Fresh Start Effect
Nick Ellinger joined the Moore, where he works to increase the automation and customization of fundraising as chief brand officer, in January 2020. Before that, he was DonorVoice’s vice president of marketing strategy, working with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Share our Strength | No Kid Hungry, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation to look at their fundraising with a different lens. He developed his direct fundraising muscle running Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s direct marketing program for a decade. He’s also the author of "The New Nonprofit" to challenge fundraising norms.