Getting a new report to evaluate and manage your Advancement efforts can be quite challenging.  Because programming resources are scarce and emergency needs take priority, receiving a report is often preceded by a long wait in a queue.  So, before your request finally makes it to the front of the line, there are important steps you should take to ensure that you will get what you need.  Even if you are in a small shop and write your own reports, thinking carefully about why you need a report and how it will be used will make sure you spend your own time as wisely as possible.

To help you, I have put together ten tips for making sure that you get reports with the information you really need.  In today’s post, I share the first five:

  1. Learn everything you can about your data and your database.

Before you can start the reporting process, it is very helpful to understand as much as you can about your institution’s database.  The first step is to make sure that you’ve taken any database training offered to you internally.  If you took the training a while ago, consider taking it again for a refresher.  Then find out who the “superusers” are among your colleagues—they may be officially or unofficially recognized as such—and ask them to show you what they look at and consider most important in the tool.  If there are things you want to see on your reports, e.g., fiscal year giving totals, prospect manager assignments, direct marketing response rates, etc., ask the superuser to show you where to find the data that would be used to calculate or report on those items.  Also, a report may already be available—superusers often know what’s out there and may be able to point you to something that already exists, getting you the info much more quickly!

  1. Enter and maintain good data.

There has long been a term in the world of databases—GIGO—which stands for “Garbage in, Garbage out.”  It is an important reminder that your reports can only be as good as the data on which they are based.  If the data is bad, the report will provide you with bad information, too.

One of the ways that data can become difficult or even impossible to rely on is when a field is used to store more than one thing.  Let’s consider a field to store a constituent’s nickname.  Some users input what they call the constituent (e.g., “Harry” instead of “Harold”) to use as a salutation for communications while other users input what the constituent’s classmates called her for event nametags (e.g., “Miffy” instead of “Marisol”), even though she introduces herself today as “Marisol.”

At one institution, alumni were able to update their own nickname via an online portal, but no guidance was provided as to the nickname’s intended usage.  One alumna interpreted the nickname field as being the name to be used before “” on her email forwarding address and created one based on her occupation as a dance instructor.  I discovered this when reviewing salutations for a solicitation to be signed by the president.  Informal salutations were generated based on the nickname field; the president would have opened the letter with “Dear BellyQueen” had I not noticed!

There’s a corollary to GIGO that I have frequently encountered—NINO—which means “Nothing in, Nothing out.”  If I want a report that shows direct marketing response rates, but the sources of gifts are not recorded in the database via an appeal code or similar tracking mechanism, then I will be unable to get that report.

To avoid issues like these, take steps to make sure that the use of fields is clearly defined, that relevant data is input into the database, and that the data is as accurate as possible.  If you see errors, correct them as quickly as possible, and create a culture in your organization that encourages everyone to do the same.

  1. Plan ahead.

Just because emergency reports often jump to the head of the line does not mean that you should treat everything like an emergency.  (You can imagine—or may have even seen—the problems that would create!)  Your strategy instead should be to ask for the reports you will need well before you really need them.  This generates two primary benefits—an increased chance of having the report available when you need it and a decreased chance of errors as more time and less urgency allow for clearer thinking.

  1. Be clear about why you need the report and how it will be used.

Every report that you request should serve a purpose.  The first step in the design process should be to think about what question you want to answer, what information you need, and why.  You should also think about your report’s audience.  Is this an internal report that doesn’t need to look polished, or is this something you plan to share with your volunteer leadership?

You may start out thinking that all you need is a report to show you the total dollars raised to date.  Then you realize that having that information would lead you to ask another question—how does the total this year compare to the total dollars raised at the same date last year (are you up or down? by what percentage?).  If you see that you are down, the next question you ask may be which gift level(s) are most impacted or which constituency or constituencies are behind.  Rather than having to dig up old reports to provide comparisons across time and/or request another, more detailed report after the fact to answer more questions, your goal should be to design a report that will let you get the answers to your most likely questions without further effort.

  1. Involve your programming expert(s) from brainstorming to completion.

You’ve done your homework and learned all that you could about your database, but to make sure you get the very best report, you should involve your Advancement Services or Information Technology colleagues or database manager early on.  They know the most about the data and database and how reporting works and may come up with a way to give you what you need that is better than what you are imagining. You are the expert on how the report or information will be used, but you should rely on those with programming expertise to figure out the most efficient and effective way to make the information available to you.  Your goal should always be to get the information in its final form, rather than in a state that will require a human to manipulate it further before it can be used.  Your priority is to act based on the data, not to spend your time massaging the data itself.

These five tips should be enough to get you started thinking about your reporting needs.  Come back next week when I’ll share steps six through ten.

Tammie L. Ruda