Friday, January 30, 2009

Don't Shoot The Database (Or Me, Please)

There are only so many times that I can take being told that a database is rubbish when actually it has nothing to do with the poor database, and everything to do with how an organisation is working. This was brought home to me again recently when I was asked by two organisations how they could improve the usage of their databases.

The first was a small charity who were using a good, industry standard package for their fundraising operations, but, they said, "it just isn't helping us". So what sort of fundraising do you do, I asked. "Well," they said, "we don't really have a plan as such. Last year the chief exec's daughter did a door drop to a few hundred houses in Hampstead, and this year we thought we might do some DM, but we're not too sure yet."

And you think the database is rubbish?! Please. If you don't have a fundraising strategy, if you don't know what sort of fundraising you will be doing, then how can you blame the database for not helping you? Yes, I know that part of my job as a consultant is to ask questions and dig deeper and find out if there really is more to it than they are initially saying, and of course I should help explain what a database can do; and I have no problem with anyone who says "I don't know exactly what I want from the database because I don't know what it is capable of," - that is indeed my job to help elucidate - but don't attack the database if you don't even know what sort of fundraising you are going to be doing in the first place!

The second case was a mid-size membership department in a larger organisation. They too told me their database wasn't supporting their operations and to be fair to them, it isn't the best system I have seen. But when I started to ask questions as to how their operations worked, it soon became apparent that there were distinct political issues between the membership and development departments. Not only that, but membership income was dropping, the benefits system they offered was in a bit of a mess and even their IT department was refusing to help because the membership department were buying their own equipment regardless of the organisation's overall strategy.

But, again, it was the database's fault! Now, yes, I realise that this was probably as much a frustrated rant on their behalf as opposed to necessarily a real belief that the database wasn't supporting them, but it doesn't help them or me if the IT systems are blamed when it is the underlying organisational system that really needs addressing first.

What both the above cases help emphasise is one of my most fundamental beliefs about why a database is or is not successful for an organisation: unless you have got a sound fundraising strategy, membership strategy, IT strategy, communication plan, organisational structure, solid management and so on, then it doesn't really matter if you have the best database in the world – it won't be able to help you in any meaningful way, or at least as well as it could be doing, until all these underlying factors are put in place. I know (at least I hope) this sounds obvious, but clearly it had slipped the mind of the above two organisations.

So go ahead, slag off your database if you want to, but, please, have a good look around you just before you do...

No comments: