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CRM/Data data management

How to Set Up a Naming Convention for Your Nonprofit CRM

When staff are entering lots of data into your CRM system, a good naming convention is a must for certain records. Here’s how to go about creating one.

If you’re reading this, then deep down, you know it’s time.

The database has gotten out of hand with people entering data any which way. Let’s fix that and talk naming conventions. =D

A naming convention simply dictates how a record gets named in your system. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a tiny process-cog in the larger data machine.

But assuming you want your database to stay clean and usable for staff, a naming convention can be key to that puzzle. Luckily, it’s not too late to start using them.

Okay. But why is this important?

The quote below perfectly sums up how + why naming conventions work:

“Naming records consistently, logically and in a predictable way will distinguish similar records from one another at a glance, and by doing so will facilitate the storage and retrieval of records, which will enable users to browse [file names] more effectively and efficiently.”

The University of Edinburgh’s records management page

Even though this blurb is about file names, it’s all the same! Using naming conventions in your tech/email/CRM system will:

  • Keep assets organized by classifying & categorizing certain records.
  • Make searching easier, thanks to the consistency and predictability behind it.
  • Endure as people move on from your org, since record names aren’t left to the whims of individual staff.

When should we use a naming convention?

Not every record needs a naming convention. Here are some common database assets where a naming convention may make sense:

  • Campaigns (think emails, phone-a-thons, etc)
  • Events
  • Donations (to identify grants, individual gifts, sponsorships, etc.)
  • Email Lists

In short – any complex asset that isn’t a person or organization record, and that is typically entered by staff, is a great candidate for a naming convention. Let’s set one up.

How to Set up An Effective Naming Convention For Your Database

Let’s say we want to set up a naming convention for campaigns – a common object type you’ll see in database systems like Salesforce and Raiser’s Edge.

Since spreadsheets are my happy place, I’ll break down the steps below in a Google Sheet. But you’re welcome to do this in a Word doc, notepad, post-it, or wherever else!

1. First, figure out what needs to be in the name.

Your naming convention should make it easy for someone to tell at a glance what this “thing” is. Using our example, what data needs to live in the name for us to immediately know what a campaign represents?

In my case, I’d need to see the fiscal year, the team responsible and the ‘type’ of campaign something is for a convention to be useful. But you may find quarters, exact dates, or even regions (if your org is national) to be just as important.

Screenshot of the list of key data points: fiscal year, type and team.
These are the key data points we’ll use for our campaign naming convention.

2. Then, simplify & standardize your components.

Use shortened names or acronyms to reflect different teams. Do the same for regions, record types, and other lengthier data points. For dates, consider the format that will be most helpful if you plan to incorporate quarters, fiscal years, or hard dates.

Tip: If you’re using exact dates, YYYYMMDD is a universal best practice.

Below are my data points from step 1, with formatting notes for my naming convention.

For our convention, I’ve assigned each department a four-letter acronym (Hint: keep the # of text characters in your acronyms consistent.) I’ve also decided to note my fiscal years with an “FY” prefix.

3. Start with the most critical component and move backwards.

Think in terms of searching. If you had a list of 1,000 records and you had to find one in particular, how would you go about it?

Each row in this table represents a single campaign record. Columns B-D represent a necessary component we’ve identified for our naming convention.

We can name these records differently, based on how we order each component. It ultimately boils down to which arrangement makes the most sense for your org.

To see what I mean, check out the record name options below – using three different naming conventions.

Here are 3 different options for a naming convention, based on different high-priority components.

You have a naming convention! A few more tips:

  • Punctuation over spaces. Use text characters like colons and underscores to isolate the different parts of your naming convention.
  • Leave room for your team to customize. The end of a record name is a good place to leave things more open-ended. Let staff add their own descriptive details.
  • Enforce it! It may take some reminding and proactive checking before your naming convention sticks. Par for the course – just be sure to document it somewhere (like your user manual) and to hold staff accountable to using it.

To wrap up…

Naming conventions may not be the flashy thing that gets people excited about the database. But they’re a best practice in ensuring the usability of your system for years to come.

Share your thoughts!