Confessions of a Nonprofit Database Administrator

Database Administrator, Manager of Development Operations, Manager of Development Systems, Information Systems Manager — every career move I thought, “With this new title, at this new organization, I will definitely have a voice. I will amaze everyone with my skills, I will work efficiently with my team, and leadership will recognize my critical importance. This is it!”

Let me share with you a quote from Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Hmm, no kidding.

Turns out it’s not a problem at the organizations where I worked, but a universal nonprofit problem: Operations teams are the low guys on the totem pole. Every time. I bet that is both difficult to hear and also not that surprising.

That being said, we can’t really change the entire office to work with us the way we know (I mean we totally KNOW) is best. However, I have found in my career that we CAN change how we approach situations and work with multiple roles and personalities. I know, I know. Easier said than done.

Let me shed some light on some of the things we can change, as well as some basic observations I have made over my 15 years of working in nonprofit operations. And on a side note if you find yourself at an organization that simply does not treat you the way you deserve to be treated; you should leave. Period the end.

Here are four tips for empowering yourself from a former nonprofit database administrator.


1.    Ask Why, because Knowing is Half the Battle

When you understand WHY you are asked for something, it makes it easier to produce. This is especially true for when you have co-workers who don’t communicate their needs well. Getting these team members to give you a little background will help you to better understand what they want, and then ask the appropriate follow up questions.

For example, a gift officer wants a list of all their prospects. If you don’t ask questions, you might be annoyed that he is asking you for just a list of names. But when you ask why, he says “well because I need to call everyone who has made a gift in the last month.” Just by asking why you can now understand his needs better, and ask follow up questions like, “Would you like a specific phone number? Would you like me to exclude anyone who does not have a gift in the last month? Does it matter how much the gift was or what it was for? What types of gifts? Pledges and cash? Or all gift types?”

Learn five ways technology can boost your major gift efforts.

You are now better equipped to create the list he needs and to understand why he needs it (to make calls) so you can exclude anyone who has a do not call solicitation code. This creates less back and forth with the gift officer, and less attempts at getting to the final results. Go GI Joe!


2.    The Proof is in the Pudding

I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me “Are you sure those numbers are right?” “Are you sure this is pulling the right criteria?” It is super frustrating. It’s like when my 5-year-old asks me “Mama, are you sure this is the right way to school?” Ugh. Yes sweetie, as the adult who is driving the car, I know how to get to your school that we go to 5 days a week.

Of course the numbers are right, of course these are the right constituents. I know how to do my job.

But, as it turns out about 25% of the time, the answer is no, the information is not correct (in the numbers scenario, not the navigation. I always know how to get to school). Insert foot in mouth here. There can be a lot of reasons for this, but more often than not, it’s because I wasn’t given the right information.

“Oh didn’t I say cumulative giving? Sorry that’s what I meant. Well I assumed you would know it was for a mailing.”

“Mama, you’re supposed to know its pajama day at school. I didn’t tell you, ‘cause I thought you knew. You’re the mama!”

 Now that we have all the information, yes, we need to start over. I hate starting over. (And turning the car around to get pajamas for pajama day.) The good news is, when this starts to make a pattern, you can apply some simple fixes to make it work better for you. Then, you avoid as many of those start-overs/turning-the-car-around scenarios as possible.

See how technology can make the job of a database administrator easier.

I recommend having a data request form, with some checkbox fields, but also some free text space. And ALWAYS have a conversation after the form is submitted. A review of the project, a recap of the plan. Let’s face it, you’re probably going to get piecemeal information again, but not for the same thing twice! You’ve just saved yourself from a ton of repetitive headaches.  Congrats, you can have that pudding 😊


3.    Repeat after me: “I am not IT.”

How many times, and I ask this but of course I already know, how many times have you been asked to fix someone’s email, Microsoft Excel, projector, printer, iPad, or even their computer in general? A million, right? I don’t know how, but it apparently snuck onto my resume that I was also fluent in IT support or had previously worked a helpdesk. If it didn’t sneak onto my resume, then it surely snuck into my job description. WRONG. Don’t be afraid to correct your colleague. “I actually don’t know how to do that” or “The IT helpdesk is really who you’re going to need for this.”

It is not admitting defeat, you are not the weakest link. This is not why you were hired. You were hired because you are amazing. No one else understands the database the way you do. No one else has the vision to see 12 steps ahead and be able to anticipate the needs of other teammates. No one else can bring together all the fundraising arms of your department in a single report for month-end, or into a single mailing for the annual report. No one else has the patience to stare at an Excel spreadsheet trying to reconcile the month while being off by $1.32. And that’s not even half of it.


4.    If it is not in the database…  it still probably happened so why isn’t it in the database?

Every shop where I worked, I mean every single one, there was a person in leadership who said “If it’s not in the database, it didn’t happen.” This was to say that if you didn’t get your actions in, your opportunities and pipeline projections, or even a constituent’s gift, then it doesn’t count. We are not manually adding that number to our report or that revenue to our progress towards goal.

But then that same person, may also say to you “Hey Ashley, can you make sure Robert Hernandez’s $10,000 gift is counted this month?  He said it’s in the mail and I know it will be here soon.” Cue Homer Simpson, doh. You may not be able to say no to these individuals, but you can CYA (cover your, um, apple bottom jeans).

Let me introduce you to my friend the asterisk. Whenever you manually add a number to a report, or a person to a list, use an asterisk. In your email presenting the report or list, call attention to the asterisk and say “this asterisk includes X manually added information.” Then SAVE the email. Track your steps. Is this a recurring report? Have a separate page for the report that lists the exceptions and when they were added or even removed. You’ll thank me later, and you’ll have in writing a reference to the ‘intentions’ you are now counting. See? It still happened but you were prepared for it. Rock on with your bad self!

Bottom line, you are important. You are a vital to your nonprofit, and a critical piece of the puzzle. Your organization’s mission cannot be fulfilled without you. For a long time in my career I didn’t feel that way, and that in some ways reflected in my mood and my work. But when I started realizing that I had to be my own advocate, that at times I may be considered the low man on the totem pole, that didn’t matter. I WAS the low man on the totem pole. I was the base, the foundation. Everything I and my team did was to better equip the department to do what they needed to do. I was needed, and I was smart. I am smart. I bring a lot to the table and once I realized that my day-to-day became so much more enjoyable.

I don’t know why you started working in the social good space, but for me, it was the ability to give back and know that I was contributing to the greater good. I was helping to make the world a better place in some way. When you’re looking at a database every day, or spreadsheets and reports, it can get tough to feel the connection to the mission. It can feel difficult to realize your worth when you are continually putting out fires and not always recognized for your efforts.

If that is the case for you today, I am here to tell you, that you are recognized. You are valuable and your work is important. Warren Buffet said, “a person is sitting in the shade today, because someone planted a tree long ago.” You are planting trees. You are awesome. And so is Warren Buffet. He’s a smart man, must have seen his fair share of spreadsheets. 😉

Keeping reading: Confessions of a Nonprofit Database Administrator, Part II