Who 'Owns' the Data in Your Organization?
Let's talk about organizations and how they approach data. It's really an interesting situation and one that can start to get complicated — politics are involved, that word "ownership" gets in the way and then there's the discussion about what "data management" really means.
For anyone in the IT area who might be reading this, don't worry, I'm not going to turn this conversation into a database conversation. But I am going to challenge ownership of data under specific circumstances.
Below are some key questions that every organization should ask internally to make sure its data is "owned" in a way that it is optimized.
- What do you think is the primary purpose of your constituent data?
- Who in the organization makes decisions around what data is captured in the database?
- Who manages the hygiene of the data? Who is held accountable for data hygiene and quality?
- Who tracks changes in the constituent data?
Let's break these four questions down and talk about why they are important. But let me go ahead and tell you that the best answers do not identify only one department.
Many organizations would immediately say that the primary purpose of the constituent data/database is to make sure they have records of their donors, volunteers, etc. Indeed, this is a correct answer, but if it is the only answer, there's a problem. I would suggest that the only reason to have a record of your constituents is so you can do something with the data. Those records exist for the purpose of raising money, spreading awareness and building relationships. The data is a means to an end — not the end itself.
This is a huge distinction because if the purpose of the data is not understood at all levels of the organization and by the people who are interacting with it or accountable for it, then there is likely to be confusion down the road. Confusion? Yes, confusion about why it is important, how it should be handled and how it should be managed. Let's face it — if the data is not usable for optimized marketing and fundraising, it has greatly missed the mark.
This is a politically charged area for many organizations. There are so many decisions to be made around data and databases. If the first point (above) is aligned — i.e., the purpose of the data — then this becomes much easier. But in my experience, the value of data sometimes gets lost in the amount of work/time/money it costs to manage it.
One of the worst things that can ever happen to an organization is when decisions about keeping, cleaning or managing data are made based on workload or only IT expense. Those decisions must always include the value of being able to use the data. Imagine sitting in a meeting with marketers and fundraisers and the topic of a specific metric or a specific data point comes up.
Now imagine the marketers and fundraisers saying, "If we had that, we could then be more customized (relevant) in our messaging," or, "If we had that, we would be able to track people as they do x, y, z and how they are engaging with us."
We've all been in these situations. Ready for the rude awakening? Now imagine the answer coming back as one of the following:
- "It will take XXXX (time) because there are 100 other things in the queue ahead of this request."
- "We don't have room in the database for another field."
No database, data management or data enhancement decision should be made, prioritized (or de-prioritized) without talking to the people who are in charge of putting that data to use. If you want to talk about the value of work hours or the value of database expense, the answer can only really be understood by asking the marketers and fundraisers what they can do with the data and asking them for "mission results." In other words, ask how much money can be raised, how can retention be improved, etc.
Data hygiene and accuracy
The answer to who is accountable is really split into two areas: 1) management of hygiene and 2) ensuring quality.
- Management is about doing the things within the database that are necessary such as National Change of Address (NCOA) through the USPS; phone verification; and append, deduplication and merging of accounts/records, etc.
- Ensuring the quality of the data is a whole other ballgame. In fact, I would argue very strongly that data quality sits in the hands of the gatherers — the people who are creating forms for constituents to fill out, the people who are walking the tracks with event participants, the people who are sitting with donors in conversations, the people who are checking in volunteers for service, etc. These individuals (and sometimes the processes they create) are 100 percent responsible for making sure the "best" data is collected. And "best" can be defined by it being the right data to collect and whether it is complete data. And if you are asking yourself again how do you know what is the right data to collect, go back to the earlier points. The right data is data that serves a purpose and is usable to do other things — most importantly, drive more value to the mission.
I bet everyone thinks this is the most obvious one, right? Of course, the IT department is responsible for tracking the data. IT staffers are the ones who should know how many constituents are on file, how many records have specific data (i.e., e-mail, birth date, etc.), right? Well, I don't disagree that they should be aware of the overall health of the database, but the marketers and the fundraisers should be aware of the overall health of the constituent file.
Sound like I'm splitting hairs? I'm not.
Marketers and fundraisers need to own the health of the constituency. What that means is that they are aware at all times what the organizational retention rate is of key audiences. They need to understand which constituents are engaging across multiple channels vs. single channel. They need to know how quickly the constituent database is growing (i.e., how many constituents are new to the organization every year) to know if the constituent base can support future goals. This is what I mean by owning the constituent file. If marketers and fundraisers are the ones who need that information to do their jobs, then they should be held accountable for knowing what is happening with that data.
These are just a few of the hot topics that come up in conversations around databases and data. It's not cut and dry. Ask these questions in your organization, and make sure you have the right eyeballs on the data and decision-making processes in place to be successful. An operating database is not the success story. An operating database that enables optimized marketing and fundraising is the success story.
Vice President, Strategy & Development
Eleventy Marketing Group
Angie is ridiculously passionate about EVERYTHING she’s involved in — including the future and success of our nonprofit industry.
Angie is a senior exec with 25 years of experience in direct and relationship marketing. She is a C-suite consultant with experience over the years at both nonprofits and agencies. She currently leads strategy and development for marketing intelligence agency Eleventy Marketing Group. Previously she has worked at the innovative startup DonorVoice and as general manager of Merkle’s Nonprofit Group, as well as serving as that firm’s CRM officer charged with driving change within the industry. She also spent more 14 years leading the marketing, fundraising and CRM areas for two nationwide charities, The Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Angie is a thought leader in the industry and is frequent speaker at events, and author of articles and whitepapers on the nonprofit industry. She also has received recognition for innovation and influence over the years.