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Nonprofit Data Management & Empowerment - Oz du Soleil

Steve, the nonprofit Volunteer Coordinator, has a meeting with the Executive Director and a major donor in 3 hours, and Steve needs data!

The canned reports in the cloud-based CRM aren’t formatted for details on volunteers, but Steve believes he can manually compile the data in a spreadsheet. Or, does he go online and research how to configure a volunteer report in the CRM? OH! Steve doesn’t have the credentials to log in and configure his own reports. Now what?

Last week I did searches for “Excel for non-profits” and “non-profit data management.” Lordy, there were anti-Excel articles aplenty. IdealWare posted a thorough article “Back Away From That Spreadsheet: Why Excel Isn’t a Donor Database.” They list 7 things that Excel (supposedly) cannot do. But that’s not an interesting conversation. There’s no need to prove or disprove their claims. As I’ve said many times before: data management is the task, Excel is just a tool. A pencil, spiral notebook and discipline can do those 7 tasks.

Let’s not debate over tools today.

What is interesting about these anti-Excel articles are 2 things:

  1. They don’t speak to the challenges that a lot of non-profits face
  2. They espouse a round-about dis-empowerment of the people they want to help


A lot of non-profits don’t even have money for payroll or, they’re operating with a part-time admin as the only person on payroll. So, when these anti-Excel conversations come up, they’re often a sales tactic for something that many non-profits can’t afford and/or there isn’t the mental bandwidth to take on the learning curve, configuration and ongoing self-support of a cloud-based app with ticklers, email capacity, permission levels, and reporting features.

Some of these solutions have a free version–but tech support is via email only. To get tech support by phone, you have to be at their higher tiers, paying several hundred dollars per month. For custom configuration of the app, that’s an extra charge. Either way, there are costs.

That’s a serious problem with these anti-Excel articles because it’s plain ol’ fear-mongering when you offer specious arguments against Excel, and ignore the reality of many nonprofits. If a nonprofit has the money and people available, go for it. For the nonprofit that doesn’t have the resources, there are solutions … yes, in Excel. Even for those still running Excel 2003. Example:

IdealWare says that Excel won’t warn of upcoming tasks or act as a tickler for other things like grant submission deadlines. BALONEY! That’s easy to do with conditional formatting and Excel’s TODAY() function. A more advanced solution would use VBA coding. IdealWare does raise excellent concerns. However, they are Data Management and Data Organization issues; not Excel issues.

So, let’s stop scaring people. There’s no boogeyman in Excel.


being empowered

EMPOWERMENT! This is the underlying theme every time there’s a complaint about someone having created a flimsy spreadsheet instead of using the company’s CRM or, refusing to turn something over to IT or, spreadsheet collaborators each working from different versions of the same spreadsheet. There are conflicting goals between

  1. Tight consolidated data for the business and
  2. Users having their individual needs met

People need what they need, when they need it, how they need it. And that’s in danger every time someone champions taking all the data, moving it into the cloud and providing canned reports. You can see it in the story about Steve. There are so many hurdles between him and the expectations of the Executive Director and donor. He’s got every incentive to bust open his ancient Excel 2003 and create something that’s good enough, albeit fragile and maybe even wrong.

Let’s look at another scenario A member of Hacker News, Breckinloggins, describes a brilliant scenario in response to an article, The Importance of Excel by James Kwak. (Read his response here.)

To summarize: Breckinloggins details the frustration and length of time for development of a proposed software replacement for Excel. The result being, the users give up hope and are “far happier with their clunky spreadsheet.”

Aside from the waiting, the nature of data management is that you need multiple views of the same thing in order to get the full story. Often, you can’t anticipate what you’ll need. In the example of Steve needing the volunteer-related data. He might have to go back and get the data on special events to retrieve specific details on the volunteers’ roles and time donated. Going back for more reports gets really old if you have to rely on someone else to get the data and format it exactly how you need it.

Verily, verily. Steve is staring at a neon red invitation to empower his-damned-self and go rogue-spreadsheet.


First, we have to acknowledge where a person or organization is, and look at what they’re trying to do. They may have exactly what they need. Or, they need creative solutions because they can’t afford the perfect-world solution.

What they don’t need is fear-mongering, Cassandras or doomsayers.

Second, realize that empowerment is what people are fighting for when they resist expensive, complex solutions. When Steve is sitting at his desk feeling desperate, the benefits of centralized relational data start looking like a hassle.

Throughout an organization, responsible Data Management has got to be the mindset for everybody, it can’t be the responsibility of a few who then act as gatekeepers. Every time I’ve seen something go wrong, it’s not been Excel or the fancy database. It’s been someone who just needed some data, got some data and marched ahead. A Data Management mindset considers the level of crap data that you know you have; understands that information is dynamic; knows where to look to reconcile apparent errors; is always thinking “data quality;” and strives to protect the dataset.

If our Steve can be trained to take on a Data Management mindset,  maybe he can then have access to the centralized data or, maybe he can pull together his rogue spreadsheet and also speak to potential weakness in what he presents to his Executive Director and the donor.

Brothers and sisters, this ain’t about tools, it’s about empowerment and having a data management mindset.
Review: 3 Benefits of Good Data Management