Manage Your Donor Database Migration in 5 Steps

Scott Richards

Here’s a fun thing you can do the next time you attend a fundraising conference. Force any nonprofit database admin break into a cold sweat with just three words.

What three words, you ask?

“Donor database migration.”

Yes, a lot of people will tell you horror stories about their experiences with moving to a new donor database. And there’s no two ways about it: it can be a BIG undertaking. But as someone who experienced a conversion or two myself, plus helped scores of nonprofits migrate to a new CRM, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be scary. The key is to make sure that you — and your organization — are prepared.

With that in mind, here are my top five tips on preparing for a donor database migration.

1. Identify Your Donor Database Champion

Yes, I know, “identifying your champion” sounds more like something you’d do to prepare for a gladiatorial contest in ancient Rome. But it’s a key part of the database conversion process, too. Some organizations are lucky enough to have a dedicated donor database administrator, but not everyone does. 

Identify the right person to manage the transition process, “own” your data, and act as the main point of contact for everyone involved. Choose someone who is familiar with your organization, processes, and above all, your nonprofit database. You’d be surprised how often someone tabs a well-organized employee with limited knowledge of their data and the organization! 

Organization is a great skill. One that is very important when managing a big project like a data conversion. But your organization’s institutional knowledge is paramount.

2. Find the Why Behind Your Data

Every organization, no matter their size or mission, has unique data points that they track in their donor database. But not all data is created equal. And data that isn’t mission critical, especially data that isn’t used at all, may not need to be moved into your shiny new donor database. 

The key to knowing what needs to move and what can stay behind is knowing why a particular field or value is needed. Who uses it? How is it used? Is it a value that is managed by users, or is it something auto-populated by your CRM? (You’d be surprised how often this happens!) 

Having the answers to these key questions is vital. It ensures that the right values are brought over in your conversion and they are mapped correctly in your new system.

3. Clean Up the Mess

Just like the old cliche of cleaning before company comes, it’s a good idea to do some data cleanup before showing your new software team your database. Nothing makes a shiny new donor database less exciting like dirty data. 

Sweep for duplicate records (if your database has a function for this — it should!) and look for incomplete addresses. There are almost guaranteed to be some folks hiding in your database with email addresses like “dontmailme@noemail.com” and street addresses like “requests no mailers.” Make a few passes to clean up your data and make sure it’s in shape for your big move.

4. Take a Critical Look at Your Reports

Lots of organizations get caught up in trying to recreate existing reports in their new system, mistaking report content for critical needs. Just like knowing the why behind your data, understanding the needs that each department has and what reports they use each day is a must for any successful transition. 

Odds are, your new system will do things differently when it comes to reports. Instead of spending hours trying to create the exact same report output, focus on creating new reports that meet the needs of each team.

To illustrate this point, here’s an actual story. I once worked with a client who held up their data conversion project because they were struggling to recreate their “most mission-critical report” in their new system. 

When I stepped in, I saw all sorts of unrelated data points on the report. They tracked information like donors’ year-to-date and life-to-date giving history, recent contact notes, gift designations and a variety of others. When I asked why the report featured so many data points, the client said that this was their one daily report that they had, because of limitations in their old system. 

The report was emailed out to every single staff member each day, and each team only used certain fields that pertained to their use. Instead of trying to find a way to recreate that same beast of a report, we determined what each team needed. Then we created smaller, saved reports that each user could run on their own. Teams only saw the most relevant data for their use. This also gave each user more flexibility. Empowered users worked in the database rather than a static, emailed report. As they say in all the business books, win-win!

5. Prepare Your Entire Team for Change

Managing change effectively can make the difference between success and failure. All too often, conversions go awry, not because of any problems with data or technology, but because there were team members not adequately prepared for change.

Sure, change can be scary. But there are ways to lessen the impact for your organization. Provide each staff member with the tools needed for a successful donor database migration.

Getting your team ready starts with clearly communicating the benefits of changing systems. Tell them exactly what things will look like for your organization once you have successfully implemented your new software. 

Make sure to build in plenty of time to provide training for each user and for each team as a group. Provide a clear transition plan. Ensure each team’s needs are met (for example, do they know how to generate the reports they will need?). Set a clear timeline (and stick to it!) so no one feels surprised at any point.

The Knoster Model

For managing complex change, I’m a fan of the Knoster model, which looks something like this:

Knoster Model for Change

 

As you can see in the top row, there are five key elements (wow, seems like a theme!) that are necessary to prepare your team for change:

Vision – What will change once you have successfully converted? What does success look like?

Skills – Training makes all the difference! Make sure everyone knows how to use your new tools.

Incentives – How will the new system make things better? Clearly lay out the benefits for each team. Give them a reason to embrace your new tools.

Resources – This is a big one. Do your users have everything they need? Is it clear who to contact with questions? Do they have access to training materials? Are they set up with necessary hardware or supplies to work in your new system?

Action Plan – This includes setting a timeline and making sure everyone knows it. To keep everyone rowing in the right direction, you need everyone to know where you are going and how you are getting there.

As laid out in the graphic, if any one of these elements is missing, then any complex change process will result in poor outcomes, from false starts to organizational confusion.

As with any complex process, there are certainly many factors that will play a role in a successful data migration. But if you keep these tips in mind, you should be able to set yourself up for success.

Get What You Need from Your Donor Database

If you’re not sure whether or not it’s time to make the switch to a new system, read our Complete Guide to Nonprofit CRMs. You’ll see a comprehensive list of features you need to ensure that you are a responsive nonprofit who can reach today’s modern donor. 

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