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 I gave back some of my pay

My text message conversation went something like this:

Me: “I refused some of my pay today.”

Andrew: “What??? Have you gone soft in the head?”

Me: “No. I’ve just seen the end of year forecast for work. We are facing a massive shortfall. We have over 300 deaf kids to help and I’ve just seen a letter from the state government saying we are only funded for 45.”

Andrew: “Oh. Got it now. Not soft in the head at all. As you were.”

This news comes around the same time that Andrew and I finally get to drop off the car to have the wheelchair lifter fitted. 6 months ago, I rang charities asking for help to fundraise for this vital equipment. One charity said if we could prove Andrew had his neuro-muscular condition before he was 18 then they could help… but there was a 2 year waiting list. Another told me how hard it was to get funding and then sent me information about a government scheme. The scheme was only for  families and even if we had been eligible, it was a drop in the ocean compared to the real cost. I rang another charity – yes, we help with making vehicles accessible for wheelchairs – but only for children!

Despairing that our need didn’t seem to fit into anyone’s criteria, I didn’t know where to turn. I told my boss and my colleagues what was happening. They didn’t blink.

‘We’ll help.’

In the coming weeks, friends, colleagues and people who were brand new to the Organisation, and didn’t know me from a bar of soap rallied around. People gave up time after work and on the weekend. Some donated goods for the garage sale; others came to the fundraising dinner; a group of ‘cake bakers’ sprung into action; a sausage sizzle was organised along with a cheese stand. Many gave private donations. I was absolutely blown away.

Today, someone asked me how the Shepherd Centre was different to other services. It’s hard to answer – not being an employee, a recipient, or an observer of those other services. But I felt I could say one thing with confidence: it’s not in the Shepherd Centre spirit to turn people away. If help is desperately needed, help is given. The things people did for Andrew and I – on their own time – was consistent with what they do for our families. I admire their passion and dedication and think myself lucky to work with such a fantastic group of people.

My friends and colleagues at The Shepherd Centre supported Andrew and I in ways for which I can never thank them enough. Giving up a little of my pay was the least I could do right now.

If you are thinking about giving a donation to a charity this Christmas, please consider The Shepherd Centre. For more information see the following article:

Government funding cut despite record number of children at The Shepherd Centre

Disclaimer: the above is my own personal opinion. I would also like to stress that all assistance provided to Andrew and myself was on people’s own time and independent of the Organisation.

Training a new data monkey – what would you recommend?

After a 4 month search, I have finally acquired myself a trainee data monkey. Now comes the critical question – how to train the monkey?

I’ve started by piling a number of articles and books on his desk! Here are a few that I consider ‘foundation’ pieces. I’d be most interesting in hearing from other fundraisers as to books, articles, blogs etc that you regard as essential!

Fundraising books

These would be my top 3 books for getting a good grounding in fundraising. What is your top 3?

The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications by Jeff Brooks.

Since hearing Jeff Brooks speak at the Fundraising and Philanthropy forum in Sydney two years ago, I’ve been a fan.

I love Jeff’s simplicity, his wit and most of all his dislike of brand gurus! I mentioned to a colleague that I had ordered a copy of Jeff’s new book and in response, they said to me that they expected it to be just a summary of what he writes on his Future Fundraising Now blog.

Only half way through the book, I can certainly say there are many familiar themes, yet I’m thoroughly enjoying it and I think it will be a fantastic book for my trainee data monkey.

Building Donor Loyalty: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value by Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay.

I first read this book about 6 or 7 years ago and its impact has never left me. My experience of fundraising texts to that point had been of rather vague prose banging on about how to make donors feel important.

This book combined definitive data about why donor loyalty matters with concrete strategies for improving it.

It remains a favourite to this day.

Relationship Fundraising: A Donor-based approach to the Business of Raising Money by Ken Burnett.

Many people recommend the work of Ken Burnett. He talks about donors as friends. When I first read this I thought it sounded nice but it didn’t actually click with me until I became a donor myself.

I support the Cat Protection Society at Enmore ever since I adopted my two tortoise shells from them in 2009. I subscribe to their facebook page and actually look forward to their facebook status updates telling my who has been adopted. I was asked to write an article for their recent book, Feline Friends, about my girls’ fascination with walking through my paintings while they are still wet. To my delight, it didn’t end up on the editor’s cutting room floor. When I approached them for an advance copy for my grandmother’s 90th birthday, they happily obliged.

I am a donor yet I feel like a friend.

Fundraising Articles

Of all the areas of fundraising, I find major gifts one of the hardest to find quality reference material. I’ve directed my new colleague to a most entertaining and informative series of blog posts by Jeff Schreifels from Passionate Giving.

If you haven’t seen 10 Reasons Why Most Major Gift Programs SuckI strongly recommend it.

Last but not least, is an interesting 2 part blog post on what makes a great database manager by Ivan Wainewright. I have to admit to reading this post with some trepidation as I am a database manager with no formal training in the area. I like the article because personally it pointed out some strengths I’d overlooked and highlighted areas where I can improve my skills.

I’d be really interested to hear from you – what books or articles would you add to this list?

So perfect it doesn’t exist

Since a young age, I’ve been cursed, maybe blessed, depending on your view, with perfectionism. (Grammar nuts may point out that my perfectionism does not apply to the correct usage of a comma based on the previous sentence). I have often thought that perfectionism was a problem for me; a personal struggle between doing a good job and getting the job done. A personal trait which, for some, was confusing as I am also known for my seriously imperfect behaviour when it comes to tidiness. (Yes, my CDs are in alphabetical order yet my desk is a scattered paper abstract art piece).

Yet all this was not a big deal. I never really considered it’s impact on others. After all it was my perfectionism.

Then I met someone more perfectionistic than myself.

I’ll call this person FISH. Those of you who know me personally, don’t try to figure out who FISH is because the name is completely random and has no link to the real person – or none that I know about! Perhaps I plucked FISH out as a name because secretly I’d like to get a fish and perform the monty python fish dance on said person. Of course, I want to be John Cleese not Michael Palin. (Should I be showing my age and baffling any readers: refer to youtube video of the infamous fish slapping dance).

As Fish wants to be sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed, the ducks are in a row and the documentation completed down to the gnat’s ass, Fish does not move. Yes that’s right. Everything stops, stalls, halts, is shut down or nipped in the bud.

If I’m sounding like a thesaurus tonight, it’s because I’m being perfectionistic with my descriptions of my irritation. You see just using one word to describe Fish’s inaction, would be, well, inadequate! A single word does not convey to degree to which Fish can drive me up the wall, round the twist and down the rabbit hole! Fish is such a dyed to the wool perfectionist that I’m struggling to remember the last time I managed to negotiate task completion without a hiatus to allow for due diligence to occur!

All this has got me wondering – am I like fish? Do I drive people doolally with my perfectionism? Then I realised that the answer must be no. After all the name of the blog is the data monkey not the data fish. A good thing really as wet data may be a very bad idea as I’m not sure data has been given swimming lessons. With that piece of unfettered nonsense I shall endeth today’s rant before I decide to attach floaties to my date fields and flippers to my text strings!

A proud profession

A couple of years ago I was at the Fundraising and Philanthropy Forum and I heard John Jeffries of CBM give a presentation on the state of the fundraising profession. During this talk, he said something like:

No one leaves school and says, ‘yes, I’m going to have a career as a fundraiser!’

It would seem that being a fundraiser is not a sexy profession. At times the way people talk about fundraisers, I’m wondering whether the phrase should be ‘never discuss sex, religion, politics or fundraising.’

Recently personal experiences have shown me that far needing to whisper ‘I’m a fundraiser’, people should be shouting it from the roof-tops with pride.

I’ve always known that fundraising changes lives. There have been times when I’ve seen it’s impact.  Yet it’s only recently that I’ve really understood what ‘life-changing fundraising’ really is.

It took for a person dear to me to be in dire need of vehicle modifications in order to maintain his independence for me to really see how powerful fundraising can be.

Less than 2 months ago, I was sitting have a conversation with Andrew about his increasing difficulty lifting his wheelchair into his car. His struggle to get in and out of the car was getting too much. ‘I’ll just have to quit TAFE’ he said. ‘And organise some other way to get my groceries.’

With a price tag of anything from $8,500 up to $20,000, depending on the option he chose, it did seem hopeless.

I went away and thought about it. I wasn’t ready to give up. I came back and said, ‘you’re right, we mightn’t be able to raise the money, but I know I’ll always regret it if we didn’t try.’


Little did I know that within 2 months, we would have already raised close to $3,000. We may only be a third of the way there – and what an emotional rollercoaster it has been – yet hope has returned.

When your profession changes people’s lives like this, then there’s plenty of reasons to be proud.


Sex, chocolate and training

It’s Friday night. I’m lamenting the difficulties of keeping adult learners focused in a software training session. My partner looks like he has a pearl of wisdom to offer. He turns and says to me:

People are motivated by sex and chocolate.

I look at him strangely. He continues.

You obviously can’t use sex in your software training but a little chocolate bribery may help.

I always have chocolate in training but it seems hard for people to maintain their attention. I explain to my partner that sometimes I make people turn off their monitors so they will actually listen for a moment rather than playing with it. His response?

Awww. You took their toys away?


I’ve trained staff on and off over the years. I’ve been accused of being very school teacher-like. The tools of our children’s educators seem taboo in a workplace environment. Asking staff to complete tests to demonstrate they’ve understood the concept seems to generate a faint hiss in the room.

My year 1 teacher used to have a bell she would ring to get everyone’s attention. We couldn’t talk when the bell went off.

Sometimes I need a bloody bell.

I know there are gazillion articles out there on adult education that I could try for tips but to be quite honest I’m not in the mood for answers, I’m in the mood for complaining! And why not? We all reach a point where a little lamenting may be good for the soul. I’m facing 7 full days of training in the next 3 weeks. For me this is a lot. It ranges from 3 people to about 16. I fear that chocolate bribery will only go so far!

So I’m bringing in the big guns. I figure if chocolate alone isn’t enough, it’s time to bring in a little violence. I’m not referring, as you may expect, to me adopting very old fashioned teacherly ways and caning my students.

No, I’m talking about ‘prop destruction’. I think of many training sessions that I’ve attended and I’m reasonably confident that at the end of the day I’d enjoy taking to something with a cricket bat.

So I’ve ordered a pinata. A dinosaur pinata to be precise. I intend throughout the day to pin all our antiquated tools to the triceratops before we smash it up and release the confectionary!  I’m hoping this will spice up training; generate some enthusiasm and some laughter.

If it doesn’t, perhaps someone should confiscate my cricket bat.

Disclaimer: before anyone raises any concerns about a charity spending money on a lurid orange dinosaur for the purposes of training, be assured that it is my personal donation to the success of the course.

Email the brave

There’s a woman on the loose with a machete. The workplace is no longer safe. She tears her way down the corridors on a mission to slice off the head of the nearest person who dares do it again. She is planning a new release a new virus which targets perpetrators and slices their heads off in one swoop. The target of her mission? Reply all and CC loving emailers.

Email was invented in 1971. Yes, the decade which gave us the disco ball also supplied this electronic workplace nightmare. I’m wondering what would happen if my colleagues and I were transported back to, say, 1965? How would we cope? If we couldn’t email each other, then that might mean we have to use the telephone, or worse, talk to someone in person. Would we be more or less efficient in our communications?

I will confess, I sent a lot of emails. But my source of wrath at the moment is not about email per se. It’s fair and squarely focused on ‘Email all’ and  ‘Reply to all’.

When I worked for larger organisations, inappropriate use of ‘Email all’ was rare. Occasionally someone would stuff up and tell us that the ladies toilet in the Western Australian office was broken and a plumber had been called. At this point all the office workers in Sydney would don their compassionate hats and courier buckets to the other side of the country. (No. I lie. They hit delete.)

Yet it’s not the Email all, or even ’email a big group’ which really gets me hot under the collar. (Let’s face it. There are times when it is essential e.g. ‘there’s chocolate cake in the kitchen, help yourself’). No, the thing which really irks me, which has me heading for the vending machine in an attempt to eat my way out of biting someone’s head off is the ‘reply all’. Grrrr.

Take this example. Colleague needs some help – ’10 volunteers needed for event’. Appropriate. Fair call. Good use of ’email all’. What I want to know is why someone would ‘RSVP’ copying in the other 199 people in the company? It’s not my event. I don’t care.

As irritants go, this one is probably not deserving of the machete wielding treatment. Although, perhaps once it would be nice…

More deserving of imminent death is the ‘can of worms reply all’. It’s the one where someone posts a question. It’s a plea for help. ‘Send me information and I can get on with what I need to do.’ Instead of replying with an answer, these soon to be dead people, press reply all and ask a question. No. Let me rephrase. Not a question, multiple questions. They make a salad of complications, alternative views and general ‘food for thought.’ This in turns, produces more ‘reply alls’, until the point where in the time you go to the bathroom and back, your email has been populated with another half dozen emails of ‘salad’. Is there anything more frustrating than needing information and getting salad back instead?

I’m half tempted to make a heart felt plea to our IT department to ban people from using the reply all function.

There’s only one thing stopping me.

I think whoever eats the last piece of chocolate cake should let everyone else know that there’s none left.

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.