Top 10 mistakes of Campaign Databases

Originally posted on CompleteCampaigns.com and written by Benjamin A. Katz

In a modern political campaign, the campaign database is the single most important tool. The right database system will allow your campaign to run more efficiently and effectively. A good system will save time, increase the amount of funds raised, improve voter contact and may just make the difference between winning and losing.

With these stakes, the decision regarding a campaign database needs to be made carefully and with a full analysis of the risks involved.

Consider these top 10 mistakes campaigns make in choosing their database system:

1. Too Many Databases In many campaigns, each member of the campaign team selects his, or her own database system. In these campaigns, different tools are used for fundraising, for accounting, and for volunteer coordination creating severe structural problems. The same people and contact information need to be tracked in several different locations creating massive duplication of effort and significant information gaps.

A modern campaign database should integrate fundraising, accounting and volunteer coordination so that the campaign is truly working as a team.

2. Inability to Handle Growth Many database systems are designed with a short-term perspective. They only allow storage of basic information. Common design limits include: a specific number of address or other contact information, limited types of financial transactions, and inflexible tracking tools.

While this may meet the original needs of the campaign, such limitations often cause significant problems later in time as the need to track additional information becomes apparent.

One common problem we see with campaign databases is in their coding system. While many databases allow unlimited coding, few incorporate tools that allow a campaign to utilize large numbers of codes effectively. A good data system will have a method of grouping codes to meet the expanding tracking needs of a growing campaign.

3. Reinventing the Wheel While building your own database in Access or FileMaker may seem like an affordable and flexible solution, there may be significant and often unforeseen consequences. Building a database system from scratch often takes much longer than expected and the end result may be a system with limited utility. As new needs are identified, the campaign is often unable to quickly respond due to limitations in their homegrown system.

Even worse, critical design flaws may remain unidentified until its too late. We’ve assisted many campaigns whose homegrown databases contained design flaws allowing contributions to be entered with missing or invalid dates, or for the contributor’s information to be lost.

4. Outdated Software Over the past 10 years, our society has undergone massive changes. . Cellular phones, once a rarity, have become the primary phone for many Americans; Email is now nearly universally adopted; and new communication tools such as instant-messenging and blogging have become commonplace.

A database system designed even five years ago will be unable to handle modern needs such as broadcast emailing. Ideally, any database package a campaign uses should be actively growing to meet the constantly changing nature of campaigns and communication.

5. Poor User Interface It doesn’t matter how much functionality a database system has, if it can’t easily be used. When evaluating products, look just as closely at design as functionality. A system with a bad user interface will cost your campaign countless lost hours.

Inconsistent layout, unnecessary extra clicks and page loads are all clear signs of a system with a poor user interface.

6. Limited Ability to Export Far too many database systems could be described as write-only. While lots of information can be entered, it’s difficult or impossible to access and utilize the information you need.

When evaluating database systems, look closely at the variety of reports and export methods provided Also, look carefully at the targeting tools to ensure that you can easily target any piece of information.

7. No Backup System Losing critical data is one of the worse things than can happen to a campaign. Most campaigns fail to plan for this critical situation. In the event of a hard-drive crash, these campaigns are often left with nearly nothing. Unfortunately for many campaigns, the need for a backup system is often not realized until it is too late.

Some campaigns believe that they can make do with a manual backup process. Following a set schedule, these campaigns have a staff member manually copy the database to prepare for a critical data loss. Unfortunately, these manual system generally leave significant time gaps between backups and are often ignored as the campaign heats up.

8. Poor Security Far too many campaigns fail to give the database security system the attention is deserves. To some extent, this is due to a lack of technical knowledge. Databases built on older systems such as FoxPro can often have their passwords bypassed by simply opening up the data file directly or with simple widely available password recovery tools.

Many database systems have limited or non-existing variations in user access. Campaigns are left with the option to either limit access to one or two highly trusted staffers or allow far too much access to far too many people.

Finally, many database systems fail to log user actions. This creates a significant security failing. In the case of inappropriate activity, without these logs, it is impossible to determine who was responsible and what damage has been done.

For high quality security, a campaign database must (1) be based on a modern system, (2) support variable user access and (3) have built-in change logging.

9. Limited Support With any campaign database system, questions, problems and new needs will arise. Too many campaigns depend on a database system without the support needed. When evaluating database systems, be sure to also evaluate the company behind the database. Are you dependent on a single person who is juggling support and development? Is this company charging every-time you need support? Or is this an open-source product without any support?

Too many campaigns find themselves in a situation where the database they’re using is not properly supported, leaving them unable to resolve problems as they arise.

10. Sticking with the Status Quo While changing campaign database systems can be scary, a problematic database is far more worrisome. By carefully evaluating your options, you may be able to solve substantive problems, save significant amounts of time, and avoid future crises.


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