9 Tips to Live By for Effective Nonprofit Data Management

There are few things I love more than spreadsheets and data. If this blog was any indication.

And what a good time to feel this way! Technology has opened up a world of possibilities when it comes to data and the sector. Organizations are in a great place to ask the tough questions, and start gathering the necessary pieces to form those answers.

However, that doesn’t make this easy. In fact, data can be a giant question-mark: how do we use it, what do we collect, and how do we keep it all organized?

Whether you’re a full time database manager or just moonlighting as one (because multiple hats), don’t stress! Your data strategy will manifest if you take small, tactical steps to get it off on the right foot.

Now. Here are 9 best practices for you to rock that data hat.

9 Best Practices for Effective Nonprofit Data Management

Nonprofit Data Management Best Practices

1. Let your questions be your compass.

Data collection should never be a passive process, where you capture any ol’ thing just because you can! That’s a one way ticket to getting overwhelmed, because now you’re hoarding all this information that you don’t even know what to do with.

When deciding what to collect, consider your big picture questions. What is it that you really want to know? Then, which data points will get you there, and which are actually a distraction?

*Tip*: If you don’t have these questions yet, stop reading here and come back when you do.

2. Start by collecting the essentials.

If you’ve just implemented a new database or CRM, it can be easy to fall into the visibility trap: “I see that this field exists, therefore I must put something in it.”


Don’t feel that you need to collect a data point just because there’s a spot for it in your system! Again, you should only capture the stuff that’s going to help you answer those key questions.

3. Keep it simple.

You want to limit the quantity of data points you’re collecting, but also their complexity. Think about surveys or forms you’ve submitted. Have you ever glossed over, or completely fudged, a question because it required you to jump through too many hoops? (This is me any time I’m asked to rank multiple options on a survey. Why.)

You don’t want staff or constituents feeling this way. Keep your questions short, aim for simple answers, and make sure you’re only burdening folks for the data you absolutely need.

4. Duplicates are your enemy.

Duplicates are to data what I imagine voicemail is to millennials: inconvenient, confounding and easy to ignore. This is especially true when your duplicate problem impacts thousands of records and it starts to all feel hopeless!

But data cleanliness is what we aspire to. And as the keeper of this data, you need to do what you reasonably can to 1) clear dupes in your current system, and 2) prevent new ones from spawning in the future. Otherwise, your database will quickly become a receptacle for redundant, hard-to-access information.

5. Automation is your friend.

Automation may sound like a term meant for hard core techies or literal wizards. But I promise you it’s not; any decent database administrator can, and will want to, find ways to automate parts of their data process.

Why? The biggest threat to any data process is human error. A few well-crafted automations —like formula fields, system alerts, or validation rules— will help mitigate that threat.

6. Think carefully about your collection procedures.

Crappy data collection leads to crappy data analyses. As they say: garbage in, garbage out!

How data gets into your system plays a role here. Your job is to develop a process that strikes the right balance of being easy to use, but still capable of capturing reliable information. (And if that sounds like an easy feat, then you’re not thinking about it carefully enough. Because I’m basically telling you to rewrite human behavior for the sake of data godliness).

7. Water your system, too.

This can be a question of resources, but most times, it’s a priorities issue. There are many nonprofits who choose not to prioritize their database systems, or the staff who maintain them.

If data is core to your organization, then it deserves a proper home. Invest in the systems that store & manage your data: delegate staff time to its upkeep, stay on top of new features & releases, and make sure you’re constantly leaning how to optimize your platform for you org’s needs.

*Tip*: If you’re still using spreadsheets, same rules apply. Keep those docs in tip-top shape: format your cells consistently, clear out duplicates, and maintain a name & folder convention for filing those spreadsheets away.

8. Safeguard that data like it’s your own.

It’s a real shame that federal data protection laws are slow to hit the U.S scene, unlike our European counterparts. (No, seriously. I daydream about the day when the whitepages, and all those people-search sites, are no longer allowed to sell our personal data without our consent!)

But I digress. The point is that organizations who collect data have a responsibility to those subjects, even if not a legal one. Take your constituent data seriously (especially if your subjects come from high-risk communities) and adopt all possible precautions to safeguard that information.

9. But also, share the love.

Some orgs treat data like a private commodity, which can breed an unhealthy, secretive data culture! You really want data to be a conversation starter, a way for staff to tap into what’s going on at their organization and why.

You won’t be able to share all the data with everyone, but share what you can. It will help bring staff even closer to the mission. Plus, orgs that are open and transparent about their data internally are better positioned to be this way externally, too.

What best practices have you found to work at your organization?

Share your thoughts!