Best Practices for your Database System

Originally posted on and written by Benjamin A. Katz

While some politicos still cling doggedly to their well-loved clipboards and broken pencils, those items deserve a more appropriate interment in the Museum of Campaigns Past. Today, you simply must use a database system. It is the lifeblood of your campaign, the one place (ideally) where you will plan events, track fundraising, catalog volunteers, and manage your budget.

There are two things you should keep in mind about database systems. First, you need a good one. Second, you need to use it right. A good tool poorly used is no better than no tool at all. Imagine using your beautiful new Milwaukee brand cordless drill to pound a wood screw into a concrete wall. (Somewhere, a craftsman felt a shiver go down his spine.)
Hints on how to use your Database system well:

1. Be Proactive

When setting up your database system, think about what you plan to do with it. What do want to be able to track? What kind of information would you like to have available in the future? Do you think you might want to send out a fundraising letter sometime down the line to donors interested in education? Yes? Then you’ll need to create an “Education” code. And many other codes and categories. Otherwise, when checks start coming in, and you haven’t set up your system well, you will have a very difficult time targeting donors later for more support.

2. Be Flexible

As a corollary to the above rule, do not be afraid to tweak your system now and again. If you created a code for “Interested in Healthcare” and another code for “Interested in Hospice Care” and each code only contains about a half dozen names, then consolidate. Or if you realize down the line that you should have been tracking people interested in parks, and you didn’t, start tracking.
NOTE: Make sure your Database System allows you to do all this—consolidate codes, add new ones, etc. A good system will have the flexibility to grow and change as your campaign grows and changes.

3. Pick the Right System:

a. One Single System

As mentioned above, the ideal system is one that can manage all your campaign needs, from accounting, to tracking volunteers, calendaring events, to generating detailed financial reports.

Five years ago, before I started, I worked on campaigns where the standard practice was to use three different systems for fundraising, accounting and tracking volunteers. What this amounted to was triple data entry and information gaps—often, a Volunteer Coordinator would receive a new phone number or address but that information would not be shared with the Fundraiser and Treasurer.

Today, with web-based software available, there is no reason not to use a single system for your campaign. It saves you time and money by ensuring the efficient utilization of your human and financial resources. Your Fundraiser should know a donor is also a good volunteer. Your Treasurer should know the numbers the Fundraiser entered for the latest event. With this experience in mind, I started and created our single system, BackOffice. You can now find other single systems on the market as well.

b. Targeting

If picking a house is about Location, Location, Location; then picking the right database system is about Targeting, Targeting, Targeting (see also: my article on Fundraising). While you want a system that is easy to use, you really need a system that can target effectively. As mentioned above, putting everyone in your database system does you no good unless you take advantage of that information. You want to send the volunteers messages about volunteering. You want to send donors messages about donating. You want to send messages to people on the east coast about events on the east coast, and messages to people on the west coast about events on the west coast.

I often get frustrated about the way I see many campaigns using their email list. These campaigns send the same message to everyone in their database whether or not they are a volunteer, donor, family, friend, or foe—sometimes the email goes out to people who work for the opposition!

You need to target, and you need a system that can help you do this easily. This means being able to quickly find all the people coded as “Volunteer” as well as all the people who gave between $200-$500 in the last election cycle (but haven’t contributed in this one), and are NOT coded as “Volunteer.”

c. Integrate the Internet

The days of the internet not being important to a campaign are long gone. However, most campaigns still treat their internet campaign/activities like a completely separate enterprise. A volunteer who signs up on your website to walk precincts is no different than a volunteer who walks into your campaign office. Each needs to be tracked the same and receive the same correspondence.

And if done right, integrating the internet does not need to be a lot of work, nor the (expensive) domain of an outside “web consultant.” For example, with our BackOffice system, information is integrated directly into the database system from the website. What does this mean? Let’s say a donor goes to your website and wants to make an online donation to your campaign. If your website is not linked to your database system, you might have to wait several days to obtain the donation information. Then you’ll have to have someone physically enter the data into the system (and hope they get all the correct information into the correct fields). With a system like BackOffice, being integrated to your website means that once that online donation is made, that information gets directly imported into your database system. If your Fundraiser or Campaign Manager wants to know what the funds are like before a big event the next day, the most current information will be available to them.

And integration is not limited to donor information. You can use your website to collect data on potential volunteers or RSVPs for a dinner. With a system like BackOffice, you create those information-gathering pages for your webpage from your database system, and once filled out online, that data is entered immediately into your database system. Integrating your database system with the internet also means you can create and send broadcast (personalized and targeted) emails from your database system.

4. Invest the Time

Databases aren’t born, they’re made. When you sit down with a stack of business cards, make sure you enter not just names and addresses, but also descriptive codes, where and when you met these people and what you spoke about. This information will be invaluable later when you speak with them again, when you can name their kids, ask how their mom’s hip surgery went, if they’ve been able to get out lately and take their dog Sparky for walks around the lake.

This kind of information is not only crucial in one-on-one conversations, but also makes your large mailers that much more effective, especially if you have a system that can personalize letters and emails based on various codes and other data. You can send letters to all the single, female donors in Boise who are interested in healthcare, love animals, and want to volunteer. If you don’t take the time to put the data in, you won’t be able to get it out later.

Your database system is the most important tool in your campaign’s workshop. Make sure you are proactive, flexible, find a quality single system that can do advanced targeting and web integration and then take the time to set it up right. If you do, your campaign will look like “This Old House,” and not “The Amityville Horror.”

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