Every nonprofit professional knows that databases are the linchpin of your organization. This will become exceptionally evident during a database conversion.
Since the fall of 2013, the Folger Shakespeare Library has been transitioning from using multiple databases to using Tessitura institution-wide. This is an exciting time for the Folger as the conversion will allow staff to share data cross-departmentally like never before. However, a major transition like this one can also be stressful, and it's for this reason that I want to share tips about how you can keep your head above water during a database conversion at your own organization.
Clean up the data in your current database
Streamlining and standardizing data in your new database should be a primary goal of your database conversion. You should strive to do this in the data mapping process; however, inevitably, you will find that there are parts of your current database that are “unclean” such as duplicate records, codes that are either missing or in different fields because of inconsistent data entry, or data loaded from a past conversion that is not in a manageable format. The more issues you can identify and correct before you begin any data extractions, the cleaner your data will be in your new database, and the less time you will spend fixing these issues during data mapping. In other words: garbage in, garbage out.
Keep an open mind
When you've been using a database for some time, you will become accustomed to viewing and manipulating data in a certain way. It's important to keep an open mind during your conversion and realize that just because you've been doing something one way, doesn't necessarily mean that it's the optimal way. Challenge yourself to think through your business practices to determine how to make the software work for you. You are acquiring a new set of powerful tools, and you should embrace them. Database forums are useful for these types of ideas; it's rare that your organization is the only one who has encountered a certain need.
Schedule short, weekly or bi-weekly status meetings
Scheduling a status meeting weekly or every other week with representatives from each department involved in the conversion is essential. These meetings should not be long, but rather a quick round-robin of progress reports from each representative. This meeting should also serve as an open forum for addressing cross-departmental questions and decisions related to the conversion such as new standards for data entry. Representatives from departments that haven't begun converting their data should also attend so they have a voice in any decision-making.
Are your status meetings taking too long? Try converting your meetings into stand-ups: all attendees must stand for the duration of the meeting in order to dis-incentivize rambling.
Get your hands dirty and look under the hood
You can read all of the documentation you can find and watch and re-watch training videos, but you won't be able to completely understand a database until you are working in it full-time. Use your new database's test system as much as possible to prepare yourself for any situation, whether it's complicated queries or regular batch processing. It's also helpful to become familiar with the system tables and set-up behind each field and process that you use. The more comfortable you are building and fine-tuning these components, the more confident you will be in the first weeks after your final conversion.
Lorna Horres has been the Development Services Coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library since July 2013. Previously, she was the Membership Assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has database experience with Raiser's Edge, Tessitura, ProVenue, Paciolan, and Enterprise.