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Taming the Wild West: How to Create a Data-Centric Culture

By Bill Leigh October 29, 2020

Does your nonprofit treat CRM as a single source of truth? Or is your data management approach more like Wild West lawlessness, with everyone doing things their own way?

Eric Dayton has experienced both scenarios as Director of Data for buildOn, a $20 million nonprofit that runs youth service programs in the U.S. and builds schools in developing countries. Over the past few years, he’s been building a thriving culture of data law and order using the Salesforce platform, including Nonprofit Cloud, Pardot, Tableau, and a new product: Salesforce Anywhere.

Young kids in a classroom

A new school built by buildOn in Nidaga, Burkina Faso.

But it wasn’t always this way. “As an organization, we grew up with a lot of the standard business practices of the ’90s and early 2000s,” explains Eric, who started with buildOn as a Salesforce consultant and Salesforce admin. “That’s when everything was spreadsheet-based, with simple, digestible KPIs presented to main stakeholders in a basic Excel file. Eventually the master spreadsheet — or at least the latest version of it — became a system teams relied on, but it doesn’t really work well. We think these ‘shadow systems’ are helping our business, but they’re actually the source of 90% of the organization’s problems.”

buildOn’s recent adoption of Salesforce Anywhere has accelerated the organization’s data-driven transformation. Like its predecessor, Quip for Customer 360, Salesforce Anywhere brings documents, spreadsheets, and chat inside Salesforce and automatically associates them with the right Salesforce record. It also makes it easy to standardize business practices with templated documents and automation, and provides real-time alerts and other new functionality from the Salesforce Anywhere mobile app, so you can be sure to stay on top of important moments.

If some of the manual processes Eric described sound all too familiar, you’re not alone. The problems that these “shadow systems” cause are far-reaching, and there’s no better time than now to give them a much-needed overhaul. Here’s how buildOn reworked their processes to create a data-centric culture within their organization.

1 – Structured Data:

What Eric calls “shadow systems” are cumbersome manual processes — like master spreadsheets — that become standard operating procedures because staff members understandably want to work quickly and present data in a format their managers request. By default, their data practices become entrenched processes, rather than being part of a well-thought-out approach to data management. What’s worse is that systems like these keep data outside CRM, as team members are encouraged to pay more attention to the spreadsheet than to entering data in Salesforce.

But organizational systems can go hand in hand with work culture, in both good and bad ways. “It’s like the Wild West when people are creating their own documents and their own sources of truth, and presenting those to their manager,” says Eric. “It checks off that management box of getting data up the chain, but it doesn’t make it anywhere else. When that happens on a massive scale with every position in every department, you have no idea at any point what is actually going on in the organization.”

Among the shadow systems at buildOn were the organization’s main fundraising forecasting and pipeline tools. In the early days, these were Excel spreadsheets that were emailed around as attachments, creating confusion about which version was the most up to date.

In recent years, they switched from Excel to Google Sheets, but as Eric explains, spreadsheets simply don’t work well for managing this quantity of data. “In an organization of our size, we’re simply not going to be able to represent all our donors well in a spreadsheet. We’ll end up missing out on converting so many people that have potential.”

The answer to these problems is for everyone to keep all data in a single place — the Salesforce CRM — while making it easy for teams to track and report on that data. Salesforce Anywhere makes that possible with documents and spreadsheets attached to Salesforce records. And, since Salesforce Anywhere documents and spreadsheets can contain live Salesforce data with two-way data sync, the data is always live and up to date instead of multiple file versions containing inaccurate static data.

buildOn Community Engagement Manager Aled Hollingworth says that has helped shift the balance of his time away from admin tasks so he can spend more time talking to donors. “It’s helped having one single place I know I can go and access for data. I never need to think about whether a Google Doc is aligned to the right folder or scrolling through files for notes.”

Another of buildOn’s “shadow systems” has been a spreadsheet for tracking school construction around the world, buildOn’s biggest revenue source. “Just like our other spreadsheets, it easily gets completely out of date, is mismanaged, and has holes in it,” notes Eric. “But we are going to replace it with Salesforce Anywhere.”

Girl sitting at desk making art

During the pandemic, buildOn is strengthening programs to engage U.S. students in impactful community service.

2 – Unstructured Data:

The problem with these manual processes goes beyond just hard, structured data being left out of CRM. There is also unstructured data, like account strategies, qualification notes, discussions, and decisions. These are typically isolated in separate documents, chat threads, email chains, and file attachments. When this essential but unstructured information is left outside CRM, structured data tends to follow, undermining what should be the single source of truth.

This can lead to a larger problem not uncommon in nonprofits, in which institutional knowledge is kept with individual team members or siloed in separate files or emails. Ideally everyone could have access, for example, to the organization’s history with a donor or account. But the reason such unstructured data is left out of CRM is that teams tend to switch to other tools when they need to work together.

With Salesforce Anywhere, key documents like account plans and notes stay with the CRM record for everyone to access. Templates take it a step further, enabling organizations to standardize business processes and scale best practices.

3 – Data-Driven Culture:

Changing all these different systems also means transforming the organizational culture they reflect. Change is never easy, and an overhaul like this can’t be expected to come overnight. “Taking down these different documents one by one and getting people aligned has been a journey,” he says. “And have we solved it all? No.”

Still, buildOn is activating a new culture around data integrity and visibility. Aled explains, “The next step our team is excited about is having a better understanding of how we can forecast exactly what we’re thinking a certain organization is going to raise for us. It starts with their account plan in Salesforce Anywhere, but then also feeds into my pipeline, and then to my manager and up, so the senior leadership team can see it.”

The result is a transformation of both buildOn’s business processes and data culture, which makes it easier for development associates and project teams to keep their work — and their data — inside Salesforce.

The real value of having accurate data in documents and spreadsheets is not just in the time it saves on admin tasks. Having a single source of truth and an organization-wide culture of data integrity yields insights and discussion around fundraising and stakeholders, which ultimately leads to greater mission success.

Learn more about how to make the shift to digital in your organization with our on-demand webinar, The Time to Shift to Digital is Now for Nonprofit Marketers.

About the Author

Bill Leigh, Marketing Copywriter for Salesforce Anywhere

Bill Leigh is a Marketing Copywriter for Salesforce Anywhere. He focuses on helping teams and organizations successfully transform business processes, maximize productivity, and collaborate effectively. Bill is also the former Editor-in-Chief of Bass Player magazine.