Category Archives: Data

How to write engaging presentations: 7 tips for success

I recently went to the A G Bell Listening and Language Symposium in Los Angeles to present a workshop: When Paper and Excel Aren’t Enough: Tracking Every Child’s Development.

IMG_1957When I got back a member of the clinical team at work said to me: how do you write a data presentation that’s engaging? How do you come up with your ideas? How do you create something that will make them sit up and listen and not go to sleep?

This got me thinking… how do you write an engaging data presentation – or any other type of presentation for that matter. Here’s my quick guide.

1. Be Clear On Your Objective

I know, BORING but true. When I am the clearest about what I hope to convey, what I want the audience to gain from the presentation, I do the best job. 

2. Develop the Creative

Yes, data presentations can be creative. If what you have to present on is rather dry, then what a wonderful challenge to your creative side! My mantra is that data is only dull if it doesn’t tell you anything. Use your data to tell ‘stories’.

I’ll give you an example. Some time ago I was working on a presentation about donors and fundraising income. I had a limited timeframe to try to paint a detailed picture of the Organisations supporters such that people could leave the presentation understanding what the opportunities and limitations of fundraising growth may be.

I played around with various analogies before settling on ‘a rainforest’. I described how the donor database was made up of many individuals (trees) and depending on the types of trees, the overall ‘health’ of the forest changed over time. I discussed the old growth forest – those loyal supporters who over the years had increased their annual gifts.

However just like a forest, new individuals have to be added to the forest for it to be healthy and certainly if it is to grow beyond its original borders. Whenever you plant a sapling, you will invariably lose some. And a new tree is never going to be as beneficial to the forest as a mature tree. It will take years for those saplings to stretch towards the canopy.

By using an analogy, I was able to say many things I could not otherwise say. It would have been easy to say ‘yes, the database is bigger than it was as we have added  X thousand new donors but you can’t expect to generate the income at the same rate from these new donors – your growth estimates are too high’… and it would have gone in one ear and out the other. By putting the scenario into an analogy, it makes it easier to discuss. (Some may say that to describe donors as ‘trees’ is to dehumanise them. I’d argue that describing your donor database as a precious rainforest is an appropriate representation of  the many thousands and millions of people who generously support not for profit organisations. The planet can’t live without rainforest).

Finding this ‘analogy’ or creative hook is not always easy. In preparing for the A G Bell Listening and Language Symposium, I spent a fair bit of time in the toy room… thinking. Before the final presentation (which uses children’s books as a theme), I had pulled out buses, Mr Potato Head and Pop-Up Pirates among other things. In the end, if you are clear on your objectives, your creative execution will come.

3. Write your presentation, then remove half the words

Presentations I give today have far less words on the screen than I once used. I’ve noticed that after the first draft, my process is to remove words with each revision. In my last presentation, at one stage, I left a bunch of text on the screen in a font which was way too small to read to actually prove the point that it’s impossible to decipher quickly, if at all and then showed the visual graphic I had conceived in our database which replaced all that text.

There is nothing more painful, than sitting through a presentation which is drowning in words and the presenter adds so little extra that you might as well just have downloaded the slides and saved yourself a whole heap of ‘listening’ time.

I also agree with many articles which say, don’t read your presentation. It’s a guaranteed pathway to a yawning audience in my book.

4. Give of yourself

People connect with people. When I first started doing presentations, I think my content was such that someone else could have picked up my presentation and delivered something approximating what I had delivered. These days, my presentations are infused with a lot more of my personality. Prior to going to the Listening and Language Symposium, a now former colleague said to me ‘are you going to do one of your wacky presentations?’ (I prefer the term quirky to wacky for the record). I remember saying something like… I think I may need to be a little more serious that I usually am.

So I wrote a presentation that was slightly more serious. I did a trial run. The test audience found the pieces of the presentation which I had infiltrated with ‘seriousness’ to be the least effective. (Thank goodness I did a trial run!)

If it comes natural to you – go with it. It will invariably be better.

5. Consider your audience

I’m a data monkey who is lucky enough to work with an amazing clinical team of Audiologists, Auditory-Verbal Therapists and Counsellors. I also get to work with some very talented and capable fundraisers.

The point is there is not another data monkey among them. While a presentation of defined fields, absent of all ‘free text’ based information may excite me, it’s hardly going to get the Listening and Spoken Language Specialist humming with excitement.

I told Mr West some time ago – ‘if you’re going to present to Clinical, take a toy.’ He was brand new at the time. He thought I was being flippant. He has since learned that I am deadly serious.

6. Wear comfortable shoes

I’m thinking back on a presentation I saw many years ago where the presenter, had a habit of walking 2 steps to the left and 2 steps back to the right (and it wasn’t the timewarp dance). It drove me nuts.

If someone is constantly straightening their clothing, it would equally annoy me. Or tossing from one foot to another because their shoes have given them blisters.

Comfortable shoes and familiar clothes lead to confident presenters!

7. Take Risks

Discussing fundraising through the use of a rainforest metaphor could have been a complete flop. Lucky for me, it wasn’t!

I strongly believe that leaving some room for spontaneity in your presentation is a key to being engaging. An overly rehearsed and scripted presentation with little room for detour to suit the audience is safe. Yet this ‘structure’ can affect the tone of your presentation. There are very skilled presenters I am sure who can deliver the same presentation time and time again and have it almost word for word and still be engaging. I am not one of those presenters. I believe an element of spontaneity and risk is fundamental to success for me.

Sometimes it backfires.

I presented at fundraising software user forum 2 years ago. I decided that I wasn’t going to do a formal presentation. I would ask the audience to all get up and make them part of my presentation.

They looked terrified. It wasn’t my finest performance.

Relying on an audience to ‘give you back’ what you need to drive your presentation is risky. It’s also – I believe – one of the most engaging things you can do. People are far more likely to feel ‘connected’ to your presentation, if you give them avenues to be a part of it.  Just have an escape plan if it starts to look like a turkey!

And there, are my 7 steps to ensuring your presentations are engaging.

 

Conference Frogs and Princes

frog prince Does this sound at all familiar? You go to work conference: fundraising, Listening and Spoken Language, Disability, Microbiology… (doesn’t matter what field!) and you come home with copious notes and ideas – FROGS. You arrive home – probably exhausted – but also full of enthusiasm. And then you have to go back to work.

In my case I’ve just spent a few days in Los Angeles at the A G Bell Listening and Language Symposium with some incredible inspiring and knowledge Auditory Verbal Therapists. However, I remember returning from fundraising conferences with a similar amount of head buzzing ideas and notes – usually paper; but in more recent times now electronic.

And here are all these little frogs which could be destined to become princes, and what happens to them? NOTHING.

No one kisses them.

Sometimes it may be months before I even read them again – if ever. My frog kissing ability is scuttled by the long list of emails in my inbox; the queue of people wanting something from you who have been waiting a week because you’ve been away; and by fighting my way back to my desk through the toys my colleague has re-arranged while I was away. (Actually, what I’m fighting my way through is the ever increasing chaos of my desk – I just prefer to blame my colleague for stretching out all the lego blocks because it’s so much nicer if it’s not about my messiness… and if you are wondering why a data monkey has toys on her desk then that’s a question for another day!)

Well, I’m not leaving without a prince this time. I’m determined to pucker up and kiss some frogs and get me some princes! In the spirit of Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog, I am going to achieve something. (If nothing else I will achieve callouses on my fingertips from writing out my mantra – kiss a frog!) But where do I start?

Well, I’m going to start by lowering my expectations. There are only so many times I can kiss frogs before I’m going to have sore lips, too many princes than I can truly handle and perhaps a reputation for being the office tramp.

So here’s my lowered expectations:

  1. All those people from the conference I said I would keep in touch with – focus on 1 or 2. I could try writing to all of them but chances are they are juggling piles of emails as well. If I come out of this conference having made 1 great connection rather than 5 weak ones, then I’m happy. (Not that I’m trying to cast aspersions on the muscle power of any of the people I met). (And by the way, I’ve already done this – I’ve written to 2, and 1 has written back already!)
  2. Write a list of ‘sound bytes’ from the papers I saw and send them to my colleagues. They aren’t going to read lengthy notes I’ve written out to share with them. If I send them small bite size pieces, then something may stick. For example this paraphrased one from Betsy Moog Brooks: ‘Even if what you are doing has been effective with 100 clients before, if it’s not effective for this family, then you need to change what you are doing.’
  3. Pick 3 things I’m going to make happen / change as a result.

I thought about the last one long and hard. What 3 frogs would I pick to turn into princes – there are so many. Then I realised that while I so want to turn the embedded coaching frog into a prince, this isn’t my frog to kiss. I’m a data monkey. I can pass on that frog and the clinical guys can kiss him if they want.

So instead of 3, I’m picking 1. The data one. A big one. LENA. We have such a rich data resource at our fingertips and we haven’t kissed him. We haven’t even got past the first date!

So I warn you. Look out LENA. It’s time you became a prince. I can start now. It may take me ’til Christmas to give you a crown, but I’m going to do it.

What frog will you kiss?

Listening and Spoken Language Symposium: Impressions from an ‘outsider’

This data monkey is finally back home in Australia following the A G Bell Listening and Spoken Language Symposium 2013. What a week – inspiring, exhausting, uplifting, eye-opening, mind-boggling and exciting.

I’m not sure how many data monkeys over the years have been to a Listening and Language Symposium – I get the impression very few. It’s probably not what naturally leaps to mind. Listening and Spoken Language Symposium? Oh, yes, we’ll send the data monkey. I almost didn’t make it as at first our abstract wasn’t selected – maybe someone had told them that I did things like bring purple bunny rabbits and possums to presentations. Thankfully (for me), someone pulled out and we were offered a place on the agenda.

I am sure that there are many people either enjoying a few extra days in the states right now, or heading home with a wealth of information, excitement and jetlag. What I’ve taken home is probably different to most because, quite frankly, what I brought was different to most. I don’t have the clinician’s lens, I just have my very visual but data driven brain.

I learnt many, many things. For instance:

Embedded Coaching is not just a buzz word for guiding parents. To a data person, words like ’embedded coaching’ can spark off that extremely cynical part of their brain which says – ALERT, MARKETING AT PLAY! Thankfully, my cynical radar remained packed away as I learnt from Betsy Moog Brooks, that there are clear, definable steps and actions and – I believe – measurable skills and outcomes. Betsy outlined the Moog Center’s approach to embedded coaching so clearly and with great passion. She said she was nervous people paid $85 extra to see her presentation – it was well worth the $85. It’s sometimes a little hard for a data person to promote clinical change, but since it was the data person they sent – and specifically one who can be like a dog with a bone – I’m thinking that embedding coaching will be well and truly on our radar. To be honest, I’m actually looking forward to some of the data challenges that may come with that! (Sick, I know).

I’ve also heard the best explanation yet of what ANSD actually is and why it’s so complicated thanks to Karen McIverLux. Over the past 2 years, I’ve often asked questions about ANSD and received very few concrete answers. There’s a look I get which roughly translates as in the too hard basket to explain to a data monkey. Karen gave me great insight into why it’s hard to be concrete and has set off in my brain a host of ideas and questions. (I hadn’t divided any of the data I brought to the Symposium by sensorineural hearing loss vs ANSD but now that’s definitely on my radar.)

I had a delectable experience finding out how I could go beyond the pre-loaded LENA reports and look at the raw data, export and link back to my database. Translated, that’s like – have your cake and eat it too!

It’s been such a big week that this blog post doesn’t seem to do it justice, but this is all I have… along with a bit of jetlag and a possum who has returned home safely and will be reunited with his loving Listening and Spoken Language Specialist before the week is out!

There’s something about Dorothy

Oh no, it’s that time again. Training of new staff. You’ve been given the brief – go explain what fundraising does. You’ve done this bazillion times before and you know how it will play out. You go in and explain what fundraising does. You mention that a key element of fundraising is Direct Mail. You’ve sussed the crowd, hunting for the 20-something year old person who is going to come out with it… And then they say it…

‘What about younger donors? What are you doing online?’

This particular day, this particular monkey, is not in a particularly good mood. I can’t help myself. So what do you mean when you say younger?

‘Oh, not super young. Maybe 35?’

—-

As a data monkey, I answer questions with data. The problem is in most organisation’s I’ve ever worked in at best, there has been reliable age or date of birth data for about 1 in 4 donors. I answer in my usual style. ‘About 50% of donors are aged over [insert number here usually between 75 and 80]’. The 20 something looks at you unconvinced. I imagine them having a conversation tomorrow on the bus (because we all know that all irritating conversations occur on public transport)… “and this woman was like, saying this stuff like, young people aren’t the best donors, and like, she didn’t even say like every second word.” (Yes, I know this makes me look incredibly old but I assure you that I’ve just been exposed to an excess of teenagers on transport of late who have two words they use to excess. One is ‘like’. The other starts with f. I’ll let you figure out the latter).

If you are as tired as I of people looking at you as if you are a moron when you assure them that the majority of donors are over 65, then try this exercise. Go to your database and select the 20 most common names. Then go to a site such as “Behind the Name” and do a percentage based popularity search (I used United States). If the bulk of those top 20 donor names are born after 1970 or 1980, I’ll eat my data monkey hat!

So what names were popular before people started using the word like to excess? Here’s just a taste:

Ruby SlippersDorothy: If your donors are called Dorothy, then chances are they were born well and truly before 1950. Why have I chosen Dorothy as an example? It’s nothing to do with my employer’s database (although it wouldn’t surprise me if we did have more than our fair share of people called Dorothy). The answer is it was my grandmother’s name (born 1913), and also my aunt (born in the early 1940s). What Behind The Name did show me was that Dorothy actually reached it’s popularity height back in the 1920s and to my surprise doesn’t seem to have an over the rainbow ruby-slippered inspired resurgence in 1939. (The popularity it seems was reserved for the name of the star rather than the character, with Judy and Judith being very popular during the early 1940s. Similarly, the name Shirley surged in popularity in the early 1930s, I presume as a result of a chunderous little 3 year old movie star with ringlets).

The E’s: There are a bunch of E names which just scream early 20th century. Ethel ranks among the earliest and I suspect the days of Ethel being in your top 20 donor names went out a couple of decades ago. (Hmm… this has me wondering when Ethel Merman was most popular… I can see a film and theatre trend emerging here) Esther, Enid, Elsie, Edna and Ernest are all probably in your database but no longer the main names.

Beverley was popular through the 1930s and 40s, as was Donald, Joyce, June and Joan. Anyone called Helen is most likely pre-1940, as is Grace…. or they are still a minor as it appears to have made a comeback in the 21st century. Margaret was around for decades, steadily declining from about 1950 onwards. Marjorie, Marjory, Margery and any other variants thereof, were popular in the 1920s and 30s. Marilyn on the other hand, was a little later… I wonder what impact the movie star had on that one!

Of course, there will be names in your top 20 which are timeless. I expect you’ll find John,  William, Mary and Elizabeth (and all the variations thereof).

If you’re running a regular giving program, perhaps Karen, Sharon, Janet, Mark, Adam, David, Christopher, Daniel, Brett, Kirsten or Laura will be more common?

What are your top 20 donor names?

PS: For those interested you can access the most popular names of recent times at the NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages website. It seems that Ruby has made a resurgence!

Big Bird gets a makeover

One of the databases I use each day is getting a make-over. ‘Big Bird’ – as I have affectionately named the DB in question – it would seem is due for some cosmetic surgery.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking the same. With a nose that size, I’m sure that a bit of rhinoplasty isn’t going to be enough. The surgeon is really going to have to pull out a hammer and chisel to make his face more streamlined. Trinny and Susannah will be hard pressed to find clothes which suck in Big Bird’s waist and accentuate his curves. Considering the magnitude of the change required to give a giant yellow feathered gawky bird a make-over, I started to ponder whether he really needs one? What is ‘beauty’ in a database? (assuming that a man in yellow stockings with giant feet it is not). And is the pursuit of beauty an appropriate one for a not for profit database appropriate?

Is this what a not for profit database should look like?

Is this what a not for profit database should look like?

I stop and try to imagine what a not for profit database should be. A family station wagon with a 5 star safety rating? A Datsun 120Y? A turbocharged 4wd porsche – stylish but suitable for different conditions? I’m sure we would all agree it isn’t a Bugatti Veyron.

If you had asked me 2 years ago whether I cared about how stylish my database was, I would have said NO. I was moving from Barry Fife (the bloody useless database), to Big Bird, the simple, yellow gawky database and I was happy. But over the past 18 months or so I’ve come to realise that good looks may be needed for good functioning (and probably good grammar which I’m clearly in need of at this point in the day!). When the ‘look’ of a database starts to get in the way of people using the database, then it is time for that surgery to occur. I’m pleased that Big Bird’s masters have realised this and are working on redefining him. I’m hoping that his makeover plan involves:

  • a cosmetic surgeon to soften his face
  • a personal organiser and psychologist specialising in hoarding to work on getting rid of some of the clutter,
  • a speech pathlogist to improve his clarity and language, and,
  • a GP to look at his health problems holistically and refer for treatment where needed.

I can imagine re-defining the image of your database is a tough ask. I’ll be watching with interest to see how the medical team fare on this one. I’ve seen a preview of the care plan and so far I’d say the patient is in good hands.

Spare a thought for the goat counter

imageoutput.phpDid you save a caged bear this Christmas? Buy a hamper for a disadvantaged family in need? Buy medicine for a tiny village in another country? Well done you!

I bet when you purchased your virtual gift you weren’t thinking about how your charity of choice was going to ensure that your gift went to your program of choice.

Whoever came up with the ‘buy a goat’ concept, I’m sure won many marketing awards. Let’s call him Marty. Indeed, Marty had a stroke of brilliance. He came up with a concept which helped people feel they were making a difference. Their small donation, achieved something large… and smelly if all my memories of children’s goat stories serve me well. While Marty was winning awards for his brilliance, there was a data monkey sitting in the corner going grey.

My experience with tied – or designated funding – is inextricably linked to caffeine… and chocolate. Figuring out how to cost services / products, then how to track them reminds me of the “Impossibles” puzzles I once did. It was a jigsaw puzzle with no borders, a repeated pattern and 5 extra pieces that went nowhere. Only difficulty was my puzzle had 4 extra pieces and 2 holes, courtesy of a tortoise shell cat called Miss Piggy who I suspect slept on my puzzle one night and knocked off a couple of pieces which were vaccuumed into oblivion by my mother. Of course, I’m showing my age here because the puzzle seems so ancient no photos of it bless the almighty google images. Instead, I’ve included one of a cow… in purple gumboots. I concede it would be more on topic if it were a goat, but, sometimes I feel like I’m attempting something as difficult as getting a cow to wear purple shoes.

The challenge appears to be that everyone wants to slice the pie differently. Let me give you an example. I’ll return for a moment to my fictitious charity: the Free the Flamingo Foundation. (Yes, I certainly have an animal theme going tonight). It would be really simple if we had two categories of flamingoes – pink and white. Which one do you want to support?

Can donors support a local flamingo? Oh yes of course. What a good idea – donors like to support causes in their local areas. So pink, white, by local area. That’s still manageable.

Oh. You want to support the breeding program rather than the retirement bird program? Ok, now you’re getting a little complicated. So now do I need to track pink ones in the breeding program versus white ones, versus pink geriatric ones?

Add in the flamingo drug rehabilitation program and I want to sacrifice a goat rather than donate one. Marty sure has a lot to answer for.

Excel graphs: Henry Ford style

My new staff member, Mr West and I, were discussing graphs. I know what you’re thinking. What a scintillating conversation!

It seems that we can only reach agreement as follows:

  • red and green should be used with caution as they sometimes can convey and unintentional negative or positive message
  • decimals places on currency is sometimes confusing and best left off
  • while some graphs are technically correct their ‘direction’ can give a false emotion e.g. a line that goes down often looks more negative than a line that goes up

Yet we are stuck on reverse type. We’ve conducted a straw poll in the office and it’s 3 votes for black background graphs with white text; (with one citing a caveat on whether they are to be printed or not); and 3 votes against.

Now Mr West and I have not known each other long. Less than a couple of months. Despite that, I think he may have already detected my slightly stubborn streak. It’s faint; undetectable really; it’s probably not that noticeable. I never argue a point; google the internet for data to support my point of view; threaten co-workers they need to agree with me (except for today; that’s how I’ve got 3 votes against the black!)

I am looking for the definitive article which says reverse type (white on black) is simply no good. Jeff Brooks in his new book calls reverse type a readability killer and a crusher of fundraising income.

I found one article on the readability of inverted color schemes from Accessible Web Design. After years of working in a blindness agency, I knew not to read further. If there is one thing that is guaranteed, it is that there is never agreement when it comes to accessibility.

I tried to push my way through ‘When Legibility, Readability & Usability Intersect, Then We Reach Our Target Audience’. Ironically I found it difficult to read!

Finally, I came across 14 Misconceptions About Charts and Graphs. It does diddly-squat to prove that black graphs are bad; but it sure does give some darn ugly graphs. (My personal favourite is the pie chart in misconception 9).

Until I locate some evidence to support my position that white on black is not as readable as the reverse, then I can see that my graphs are going to continue to arrive paying homage to Mr Ford.

PS: Anyone who can direct this monkey to any article which bags out reverse type graphs, I will forever by in your debt!

Why disability databases are like fur seals

Need a fundraising database? No problem. There are plenty on the market to choose from. Ring around a few mates and you’re likely to find the same names popping up again and again. From the time you start thinking about a new fundraising database, to having it installed with all your data converted you could have given birth to a sheep or a goat. In less time that it takes for a human baby to grow you can have your fundraising database safely settled into it’s new nursey.

Yet there are two sides to most not for profit Organisations. The funds and the services. If a database for your fundraising team is as quick as having a goat, how long does it take to get one for your client services department? In my experience, 9 months can come and go and there’s still no database. That’s right. If you’re planning on birthing a client services database, then start making friends with fur seals, giraffes and elephant mothers-to-be as these will be in your mother’s group. I hope for your sake that it isn’t as long as the elephant (22 months).

Part of the problem here is that there are no usual suspects. Ring around other Not for profit Organisations and you will probably hang up empty handed.

Of course, I’ve made a huge assumption here. I’m thinking that fellow charities must be using a database to track their service provision. In your quick ring around and you may find out that the ‘database’ is the paper file. The ‘database’ is a few excel spreadsheets. Or my personal favourite, the ‘database’ is something that Jane’s husband made up in two days in Access because Jane’s husband is ‘good with computers.’ Does anyone know how to change it? Yes – Jane’s husband does. Oh great. Let’s hope Jane and her husband never get a divorce.

A year in the making

So where’s the good news? I thought I had it. I thought (stupidly) that because it took twice as long to implement a client services database that it meant it would all go twice as smoothly. Twice as long means twice as good, right? Wrong!

The issues of data quality that exist with most fundraising database transfers weren’t going to plague me. After all, we had hardly any data as it was all in those paper files.

The data quality curse

Yet it seems the data quality curse knows no limits. The same curse which causes your fundraising team to put Mr & Mrs Jones on one client record, infects the clinical department as well. I’m hoping that I have the power to stop it before it gets too bad but the signs are all there.

Take this simple example. The humble look-up list. When you open your fundraising database and pull down the ‘Title’ field, if it’s been through multiple data conversions without a data tyrant at work, you’ll have an abundance of choice. In addition to the usual Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms, it’s likely you have Rev and Reverend, Sister and Sisters, Mr&Mrs, Mr/s, Householders and my favourite Mr 7 Mrs (where someone forgot to press Shift for the ampersand).

In the case of Title, there are standards. It’s easy for a data monkey to come up and fix them all up, however what does one do for diagnosis? Or disability?

Other. It’s the answer to everything. When you just can’t decide, go with Other. If I had money for every time someone had asked, why can’t we just have Other and then write what it is, I’d be buying a house with a pool big enough to house a fur seal.

To be fair, some of these things aren’t easy. While there is an Australian standard for language and country of birth and ethnicity and god knows what else, there is not one of recognised ‘disabilities’. Or at least not one I can find. (For anyone looking the best I can find is a list from the Department of Family and Community Services of conditions recognised as eligibility for the carer’s pension. And if anyone has found one on the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or elsewhere, please send me a link!)

Another little trick the data quality curse has up it’s sleeve, is the multi-talented data field. This is a little like a bunyip, a yowie or a yeti. It must exist as people talk about it but I’ve yet to see one! It’s that field that magically transforms itself as the user’s will. When people don’t feel like typing a date, it undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a text field. Just the other day we were having a discussion about when we should enter a date and someone came up with an ‘exception to the rule’. As it was a date field, their usual request of Other was null and void. Instead they called in the multi-talented data field and suggested they just put an asterisk after the date. Never mind that a date field doesn’t allow such deviation… the multi-talented data field lives on and intuitively changes itself to allow such a thing. Pity it doesn’t also create a data dictionary definition which explains what the asterisk actually means.

But there is one more trick the data quality curse has up its sleeve. Worse that ‘Other’ in look-up lists and data fields which can magically transform themselves from date to text is the third weapon in the arsenal. The shoehorn.

This has to be one of the most used and most spectacular methods of creating a big data quality issue. It’s when you don’t have a home for something in your database, so you find another field you aren’t using and you shoehorn the data into it. This is common when Jane’s husband built the thing and now he has run off with the massage therapist to outer Mongolia and no one knows how to change anything. This is how you end up putting the mobile phone number in the medical record number box. Or the word deceased in the title field as he forgot that us humans are mortal. And if you’re looking for the name of the next of kin, try location. Obvious really.

Some premium attention

It seems that while I’ve been beavering away at work and neglecting my blog, there’s been a flurry of activity following Sean Triner’s response to my ‘premium cynicism’.

If I am absolutely honest with myself, I’ll admit that I expected my blog post to get some attention.

I mean, really… what were my chances of publishing a post rubbing it in that feline owners are far superior to dog owners when it comes to charitable donations and not expect some raised eyebrows??

I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when the cat reference went entirely unnoticed and it was the questioning of the similarity of renewal rates of premium to non-premium acquired donors which attracted the attention. Unbelievable. Where are all those passionate cat haters?

Loving your inner database: a small rant

Someone asked me the other day ‘how are you finding your fundraising software… because I was talking to [so and so] and she hates it.’

I went away and thought about this. What I was left with was the question: when was the last time someone told me they loved their fundraising database? Then I re-phrased the question to: when was the last time someone told me they loved any database?

People are the most in love with their database when they don’t have it yet. Yes, that’s right. When they don’t have the database, they love it. The ‘new’ database has so much promise. We dream of it curing all the problems the present one has. We peg our hopes and aspirations onto that new database and hope that we don’t end up comparing our situation to pin the tail on the donkey later.

Fundraising databases are particularly dangerous.  I say this because money is involved. I refer not to the purchase price but to the funds the database will generate. I hope someone did a double-take there and re-read that sentence. If you didn’t, let me rewind: ‘the funds the database will generate’. Poor quality fundraising databases can be very costly indeed. They frequently lead to missed opportunities, over-mailing or under-mailing and good old fashioned time delays. However the thought that a database generates money doesn’t sit easy with me. Fundraisers generate money; databases support you to do so. This may seem like quibbling; a pedantic nature, call it what you will. This nitpicking comes from seeing fundraisers promise a new database will turn a ship around when, in reality, it’s going to be a new ship with the same old people doing the same old thing.

Let’s imagine for a moment that there were 3 levels of fundraising software out there. I’ll be really scientific: let’s call them the ‘good’, the ‘average’ and the ‘bloody frustrating.’ The Free the Flamingo Foundation has a ‘good’ database and the Quidditch Mission has an ‘average’ database. In this case, it’s a fair assumption to think the Free the Flamingo Foundation would be faring better. That could well be so, however, we should not forget that an ‘average’ or even ‘bloody frustrating’ database managed well, could easily beat a ‘good database’ managed poorly.  I’m not suggesting that a charity should settle for an average database on the premise that if it’s managed well, all is fine. What I am trying to draw attention to is the role people play in making fundraising databases a success. These ‘things’ that we spend our days using, cursing, ignoring or embracing are a lot like the human brain: we generally only use a very small percentage of them.

So next time someone asks me how in love – or in disgust – I am with my fundraising database because they ‘hate’ theirs, I’m wondering how I can – without offending them – ask whether the database is really the problem? When the database IS the problem, there is nothing for it but the axe. When it isn’t, it’s just sad to watch all the energy of fundraisers funneled in to hating their software, rather than loving their jobs.