Is Your Database an Old Jalopy?


So. This morning, just before I was to wake up, I heard a crash. And then a bunch of beeping. My car had just been hit by a school bus.

The driver’s side door is smashed in. The side mirror is hanging by a wire. The front fender has a razor-sharp crease in it with funny little curls of paint sticking up from it.

Let’s be honest: it won’t take much to total my car. It’s seven years old, and it has about 120,000 miles on it. Moreover, the paint is peeling, there’s a permanent layer of cement dust stuck to it, and there’s a scrape that runs the length of the passenger side from a snow storm years ago. Inside, my son has filled the back seat with “his stuff” (I’ll let you picture all that) and there are various stains and sticky places.

As I was cleaning the stuff out of it–preparing for it to be towed to the Estimator, which may actually be the Terminator–I was struck by how tacky this car really looked. And how all these little things were wrong with it, like the little tear in the armrest, and the crayon melted onto the floor.

And I thought about how I didn’t really see those things until I really looked at them.

Why am I telling you this? Because there’s an analogy for nonprofits. First, ask yourself if you have taken a good look at your database lately. Databases and cars are a lot alike. We drive them around, letting them accumulate junk, and we don’t bother to fix little things that are wrong. Suddenly we realize that our database is a mess, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get it fixed up again.

Now picture this: a classic car, lovingly maintained, beautiful paint job, perfect interior. That’s what our databases should be.

How do you maintain a database so it runs like the day you bought it? You clean out or inactivate old codes. You combine extraneous codes into one. You look at your coding structure and make sure that all new codes are following a standard protocol. You run the de-duping function and get rid of duplicate data. You run an address check and correct bad addresses. You run analytical reports and see if your database is pulling the information you think it should. You cross-check with accounting. You do a search for missing data and either delete incomplete records or find the missing information.

January is a great time to do this! The rush of donations is over, and you need clean data in order to run your annual tax receipts. You can prepare now by making address changes when donors send in their annual contributions.

If you want to keep the car analogy, I could say that there are some people who simply get a new car whenever they’re tired to the old one. That’s what leasing is for, I guess. But most nonprofits can’t get a new database every three years. That’s when a database renovation can be useful, like the one I did for Mission of Mercy this year.

Database maintenance sounds more complicated than an oil change, but really it’s not. And if it is, then perhaps you’ve let your database become like my car.

You don’t want to think yourself lucky to be hit by a wayward school bus.

Which I kind of do. For the car, anyway.

Still, I was hoping to drive it a little longer, and then donate it to Second Chances Garage. I am sorry I won’t have that opportunity now to let a basically reliable car help someone in need. (I don’t think they’ll want it now.)

PS Do you want to donate your car? You should!



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