Intra-Departmental Dialogue: An Effective Way to Demystify the Language of Fundraising Databases

Recently I had a chat with Sumina who works in the fundraising department of a charity in Toronto. She expressed her discomfort with understanding and navigating the way the language of her fundraising database is customized. She said, “the other day while browsing The Raiser’s Edge, I came across a donor profile whose solicit code was listed as “No Contact.” “I was baffled, had no idea what it really meant – whether it meant ‘no contact by email’ or ‘no contact by mail’ or ‘no contact at all by any means’ or something else. Should I contact the donor or not?” She continued, “it made me feel so uncomfortable.” She finished her thought, took a sip of coffee and looked calm.

This is only one example, yet it is powerful in articulating the confusion of being unfamiliar with the language used in fundraising databases. It also speaks to the possibility of losing one’s confidence in fundraising activities because of this unfamiliarity. Using a fundraising database whose language, codes, tables and values are strange to you is like living in a house that is bizarrely strange. As you would feel uncomfortable living in such a house the same is true when working with a database whose language is unfamiliar to you.

Now the question is – what can we do to address the problem mentioned above? She could probably talk to her colleagues and figure out the intended use of the code or directly contact the donor and sort out the issue. When viewed from a fundraising and database management perspective it might be a one time or short term solution but cannot be a long-term one. For a more sustainable solution, we might want to discuss some of the questions in order to pin down key issues. Who crafts the language of your database and how do they craft it? Does your database department do this for you? Or is every user free to enter codes and table values they want? Do you have some type of system to document this process? Do you regularly update the document and share with concerned parties? Even though most of the fundraising databases come with jargon-loaded language, they may have functionalities to customize that language to suit organizational database needs.

After careful thought on this issue, I propose an intra-departmental dialogue to rationalize the language of codes and tables in fundraising databases. By “intra-departmental” I mean different sub departments like communications, event, major gift, database, planned giving etc. within the development/fundraising division. The database department can coordinate among different departments and lead this conversation to have their needs and requirements addressed and thereby establish a shared language to better customize the language of fundraising database.

First you need to understand what functionalities our fundraising database has and how they can be maximized. For example, do we have an Event Module in your database? If yes, how can you use it to better manage data as well as to serve the needs of the event department? Before rationalizing the vocabularies used in the event module, you can discuss some questions like: what codes and tables are available in the event module? What are the database needs of the department? What language can we use to represent different events; to denote different action types; to indicate various event attributes; to specify action types? And so on.

Based on organizational culture and brand as well as on database policies and practices, the intra-departmental dialogue can figure out what words and phrases better fit in order to rationalize the codes and table of our fundraising database. If we are using The Raiser’s Edge database, we can prepare a list of modes of communication to donors to fill in the Solicit Code table. The list, for example, may include ‘No Event Invitation by Mail,” “No Phone Call Before 10 AM,’ ‘Christmas Mailing Only.’ This, however, does not mean that whatever language is suggested has to be implemented. This is more about embracing the voices of different departments as much as possible in customizing the database language to make it more comprehensible, easier to navigate, effective to manage, and no longer alien to users.

Now, how do you feel when navigating a donor profile in your database? Comfortable? That’s great. Complicated? You might consider having an intra-departmental dialogue to make it more comprehensible.