7 Tips to Balance Database Management With Your Day Job

What’s one thing that development staff, volunteer coordinators, operations managers, HR and Program people all have in common?

At any time, we can become our org’s database admin, too.

“Accidental admin” is the term we’ve lovingly coined to all the database managers who never signed up for this. Typically the consequence of multiple-hat syndrome, these are the nonprofit professionals who were standing closest to the system at the time when their org desperately needed an admin.

So if you’re that person, I sympathize. Your head is probably spinning, and for good reason!

It’s hard to effectively manage a database when that’s not the primary focus of your role. Even harder when you’re not used to exercising the operations-y, data part of your brain.

But there are things you can do to weave this into your workflow, so that you’re doing what’s absolutely necessary for your org’s success. Here’s how to do data administration well, when it’s only one part of your day job.

7 Tips to Balance Database Management With Your Day Job

Employed for Good - Duck Photo
If it walks like a duck, and acts like a duck…it could also be your database admin.

1. First, understand what it means to manage a database.

This job tends to get offloaded to the nearest victim staff person,  an extra item on a long list of duties! But database management is really ‘other duties as assigned’ x 10. So we’ve got to know what  we’re working with.

This could really be its own blog post…But at minimum, being a database admin typically amounts to 3 core responsibilities:

  • Owning the tech behind your system, which means getting the back-end to work
  • Managing the data that goes into it, & keeping it as clean and error-free as possible
  • Managing the processes through which data gets entered – in the form of rules, best practices and user permissions

And if you’re thinking “but I’ve got a consultant who can handle all of this”, see #5.

*Tip*: If you happen to be managing a Salesforce database, I know how overwhelming that can be! Make sure you’re aware of these Salesforce & nonprofit resources.

2. Establish yourself as the sole admin for your org.

To my horror, I recently learned there are orgs out there where EVERT staff person is an admin. O_O

Look, I get how it might seem like a good idea to let people change the system on their own. But trust me: this is a really bad way to go! Whatever responsibility you relieve yourself of, you’ll get ten times over in crappy data, system mismanagement and downright frustration.

Give your database its best chance at survival by making sure that the baton stays with you and you alone.

*Tip*: If there’s another reliable person with a genuine interest in the system, then you can take that person under your wing.

3. Carve out time each week to spend in your database.

When it’s not the job you signed up for, it can be verrryy tempting to approach data administration ad hoc. If you or someone else needs something from the system, then those are the times you’ll work on it.

But a database is like a high maintenance plant. If you don’t give it the right amount of sunlight each week, the thing will shrivel and die.

Besides, work in your database is never ‘done’. As long as staff log into it, you will have an infinite –albeit invisible! – laundry list of tasks to keep that system useful and usable. So, identify what those tasks are and make time each week to do the upkeep. (This also helps you get more familiar & comfortable with the system).

4. Dedicate time for the boring, but essential, maintenance stuff.

Deleting duplicates, mass uploads, mass updates. This is the work that no one’s going to appreciate, not for the time it takes you nor its impact on your database.

Until you don’t do it long enough. Then, everyone complains that the data in your system is bad.

So consider this your non-negotiable duty to your org, and make sure your structured data time includes time for maintenance tasks specifically! If you get any pushback on the time this is taking you, explain to your boss why this work matters.

*Tip:* Carve out the same time each day/week & put it on your calendar. That consistency will get you into a groove, which makes these tasks go a little faster. (Even better if you can disappear somewhere to get this done).

5. Start documenting today.

If you’re new to this world, all of us admins will tell you: we only WISH we thought to document things in the beginning.

Why? Because the consultants are gone now, and no one knows what’s happening!

I’m sure this sounds like time you don’t have. It’ll feel that way, too! But you’ve got to find time to document what data is going into your system, from where and for what purpose. You’ll be grateful you did when your org finally decides to hire that FT/PT admin, who you can just hand those materials off to!

*Tip*: Don’t wait too long to get around to this. Memory is funny; it doesn’t stick nearly as long as we think it will.

6. Track how long data administration is taking you.

So many people like to put on blinders when it comes to these systems. This is technology, which means it’s perfect, which means it doesn’t need lots of human attention. Right!

A system is only as good as the person who maintains it. If you can get clear on how long it takes to do that job well, you can communicate that reality to your boss – who will then have a clearer perspective on your workload and contributions.

For better or worse, data administration is a largely invisible job. It’s up to you to make your org see the light.

7. Give it your best effort and see where you stand.

Database management may not have been the job you signed up for. But one of two things will happen over time: you’ll rue the day your boss delegated this task to you, or you’ll realize this is awesome and uncover a career interest you never knew existed!

As your org grows, so will your data needs..so where you fall on this spectrum matters.

You don’t want to continue assuming this large a responsibility if you hate it, which means you should work towards an exit strategy. That includes consistent documentation, and regular reminders to your manager that someone else needs to take this on in ___ month’s time, when it will no longer be sustainable for you.

But if you end up loving the work – like soo many of us did! – you can groom yourself to fill this role in a more substantial way. That includes seeking out relevant professional development, taking an Excel class (hands down the key to my being able to do anything), and figuring out ways to make this a more prominent part of your day-to-day.

Additional task & time-management tips:

  • Make yourself less available when working on database stuff. This work requires spurts of intense focus, and it’s reasonable to not want to be disturbed. R
  • Re-think your downtime. Any lulls at work could be a great time to get that less-urgent-but-still-important data work taken care of.
  • Leave the database as a constant item on your check-in agenda. Even if it’s not your main job, it’s still deserving of your manager’s attention – whether you’re highlighting the progress you’ve made, or the gaps that need filling.
  • Learn to draw boundaries and distinguish what’s really urgent. At the end of the day, balancing 2 different functions is about managing your workload, learning how to say no, and recognizing when something is truly urgent for your org.

To wrap this all up…

Database administration is one heck of a job responsibility. In fact, our orgs should hire someone whose job is just that!

But as long as that’s not the case – because in this sector, data administration is very much treated like a second or third hat – we can still do our best to make that system workable for our orgs in the interim, alongside our day jobs.

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