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A Data-Cleaning Strategy for Today’s Times

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The pandemic made some data cleanup tasks easier. But the best cleanup strategy gives your databases constant attention and ensures you’re collecting data that’s meaningful to your organization.

For Natasha Rocheleau, associate director of operations at the Society of American Military Engineers, the early stage of the pandemic was an opportunity for some spring data cleaning. Over the years, SAME’s database had become cluttered with outdated or at best marginally useful member data (do you golf?). Worse, nearly a fifth of the member entries were duplicates.

Bad data practices and an inconsistent approach to data management had caught up with the association. “Somebody would go online to do something, but they couldn’t remember their password, and they would just create a new account,” she said. “Over the years, we just accumulated a hot mess.”

Data cleanup is nothing new, but the pandemic has added some new wrinkles to pay attention to—and perhaps some new opportunities. The most obvious change is that members’ shift to remote work means address fields require updates. But because “update my association’s contact information” isn’t top-of-mind for many people, a nudge is probably in order.

“On the member side, it might be a good time to ask people if they can log on and look at their information, because people from home probably have a little more time or are a little less distracted,” said Wes Trochlil, president of Effective Database Management. “From the staff perspective, there might be a little more down time where they can actually go into the database to clean things up.”

Getting to Work

That’s what SAME staff did early in the pandemic. It took an all-hands-on-deck approach, asking staffers to take a chunk of the responsibility of excising the approximately 6,000 duplicate member database files. “It took a significant number of hours, but we parceled it out so people were doing it while they were watching football or doing other things,” Rocheleau said.

Cleaning the database and getting correct addresses in place had a meaningful financial impact. Because of bad addresses, the association was receiving (and paying for) returns on approximately 1,000 pieces of mail monthly. “We’ve gotten that down to about 100,” said Rocheleau.

Data cleanup is nothing new, but the pandemic has added some new wrinkles to pay attention to—and perhaps some new opportunities.

More importantly, SAME has made data cleanup a consistent practice. Every month, it conducts a monthly quality control check on fields. “That helps clean the data, but if we find something that makes us say, ‘Wait a minute,’ we can go back and study what’s causing the problem.”

Still, the ultimate goal is to keep staffers from interrupting football time with data cleanup. Michael Tatonetti, founder of Pricing for Associations, said associations should invite representatives from multiple departments to assess what fields have outlived their usefulness, and which new ones might be added. “The organization should know what its focus is,” he said. “Is it on meetings, education, certification? What are the data points that sponsors want to know about? That might be a priority for email blasts that are sent different audience segments.”

So data cleanup becomes more than just an IT task, or grunt work—it’s an opportunity for membership, meetings, and marketing departments to convene over what data matters to the organization, and what doesn’t. “At a macro level, you have to decide what fields are required and what are optional, what stays and what goes, and what ultimately matters,” he said.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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