Database Fitness for Your Parish

Posted on June 21, 2016

Part 1

Shaping up to Reach and Engage Your Parishioners

Accurate, reliable parish records have a huge impact on your ability to reach people and engage them in parish life.

Maintaining a parish database is a job that’s never done — rather, it’s an ongoing labor of love and an integral part of parish mission. Thankfully, today’s tools have made data management much simpler for staff and parishioners alike. In this two-part article, learn some helpful tips for cleaning up the records you have today and keeping your database fit throughout the year!

A database can be a lot like a closet. Even if you start with the best system and have plans to diligently maintain order, with time order devolves into chaos. Shoes don’t make it back on the shoe rack, sweaters are crumpled rather than folded, and in the very back of the closet lurk garments that haven’t seen the light of day in months (or years) and won’t be worn again.

Likewise, even the best-kept databases deteriorate. Errors and duplicate records accumulate, and information, like last year’s styles, goes out of date quickly. As your church gears up for a new year of ministry, it’s a great time for a little routine cleaning to make sure the database is up to the task!

Why Bother about Data?

The database is the tool that allows you to connect with parishioners during the week. Whether sending newsletters, giving statements, informational letters, or birthday cards via mail or email, the church relies on that data. Members with inaccurate or missing mailing or email addresses will miss out on mail. And people whose information was entered incorrectly or hasn’t been updated may receive mail with the wrong spelling of their name or other misinformation.

With clean and complete data, however, you should be able to reach most of your members with the details about church news and ministries that are important to you both. When its database is strong, a church can more easily engage members!

Cleaning Your Database: What You’re Looking for

Back It Up

If you have the ConnectNow Family Suite, your changes are permanent and not intended to be revocable, just as they would be in any other web application. So the good news is your database is always protected and available — even if you have a local hardware or environmental disaster. ConnectNow’s backups, however, are not intended to repair errant changes resulting from “Oops, I changed the wrong thing!” events.

If you’re concerned about keeping a backup of what your ConnectNow Family Suite records looked like prior to your changes, run a ConnectNow IQ report or a combination of reports that document what you wish to track (e.g., Parish Directory Report with member information, a Family or Member List from your Quick Reports menu). You can even save these reports to a PDF file instead of printing and storing paper copies.

While you should always begin any major database update with the idea that your changes are permanent, it’s wise to make sure you have a current backup in place. If you use the Desktop Family Suite, you have the option to create and store a backup copy of your database before you begin to make a lot of changes. This backup can give you a handy reference if any questions come up about what a particular record looked like before. And, if something goes terribly wrong, your database can be restored to its original state at the time of the backup (overwriting any changes you made after the backup was created).

If you have the Desktop Family Suite running in a hosted environment (i.e., Remote Solutions services), we back up for you. If you’re running the Desktop Family Suite as a standalone installation, you’ll need to back up manually or verify that your FTP backups to ParishSOFT’s server are scheduled and occurring as expected.

Look out for Dupes

While making changes, keep an eye out for duplicates. You may find that the same family or member is listed more than once in the database — perhaps a last name was misspelled the first time around, or maybe a member changed her name and she now has two records: one with her maiden name and one with her married name.

Remind staff that they should always search for existing records before adding a new family or member to the database. The ConnectNow Family Suite (as well as our Desktop Family Suite) helps with this by bringing up the search screen when you hit the Add New Family button. You can search by last name, first name, and/or city. And if your parish is part of a diocesan implementation of ConnectNow, your search can locate records from all parishes in your diocese, and you can pull the basic address, contact information, and sacramental information directly into your system as either registered or unregistered (but participating in some way) in your parish.

If you fear there are many duplicates in your existing records, consider dedicating a day or certain hours multiple times during a work week to de-duping. Make it a team effort in which all qualified staff members pitch in a few hours and comb through portions of the database.

Scout out Missing Data

Checking for missing data will help you see where the database is weak and target communications to those with missing data. ConnectNow makes this easy. Just open your Family List or Member List page and click on the E-mail Address column header in the grid (if you use the desktop program, you can click the column headers to sort your Family Directory screen). Those with missing email addresses will be listed at the top.

The same works for Address, Phone, Envelope, Birth Date, or any other column in the ConnectNow Family Suite. You can also use your Advanced Search Filters and Quick Reports to run queries that will help your staff easily spot who’s missing key information. You may also learn some interesting (and helpful) information about the database—like many members have addresses listed but few have mobile phone numbers on record. Knowing this could help you focus future endeavors to collect information from members.

Once you know who’s missing what, you can work on getting that information from members. This could turn into a long process of phone calls and mailing campaigns punctuated by tedious data entry—or you could take this opportunity to encourage all members to update their information through their own profiles in My Own Church, which is included with the ConnectNow Family Suite.

Engage Members

With a tool like My Own Church, members can update their own records, and all staff has to do is approve their updates. Let members know (through Sunday morning announcements, the church newsletter, and/or other communications) that you’d like to make sure the parish has the most current and complete records possible, and members can help out by updating their profiles and family information online. Through this same portal, they can register online for faith formation classes, volunteer and manage their availability to serve in ministries, and see their offertory contributions securely.

Tell members how they can access their profiles, and ask staff to be on hand to help out with this. Consider putting a My Own Church button on the homepage of the church website to make it easier for members to log in and update their profiles.

You can also use mail merge tools to remind members about updating their information. Send an email to those for whom you have email addresses with some merged in information (like name, birthdate, address, and phone number). Ask them to look over the merged information and update their profiles if they see any errors. You can do the same with a mail campaign for those who are missing email addresses but have mailing addresses.

As you encourage members to update their information, talk to church staff and implement a plan for making sure these updates are quickly approved in the system. Consider keeping track of updates made to profiles and send out a thank you via email, letting members know that their changes have been received. (An easy way to do this is to set up a daily or weekly email and just merge in pertinent member information.) For more tips on using My Own Church, check out our free marketing kit.

Let’s get 2015 off to a great start by getting your parish’s data in shape for the new year! The first step is taking the initiative to clean up what you’ve got now. Curious about the second step? Check out Part 2: Longterm Planning for Lifelong Data Health.

Part 2

Long-term Planning for Lifelong Data Health

If your goal is to get fit and stay in shape throughout the year, just buying a gym membership and showing up a couple times in January won’t do the trick. Permanent fitness requires long-term goals—like developing effective workout routines, scheduling which days of the week you’ll go to the gym, and finding someone to keep you accountable for reaching your specific goals. Keeping your church database fit and trim longterm requires similar strategy and dedication.

Last month, we shared some tips on how to clean up data and engage members to improve database accuracy. Of course, it’s important to go through the database periodically, rigorously taking inventory and making a special effort to revitalize data. But consistently implementing and following best practices throughout the year is also crucial to maintaining a healthy database.

If you haven’t already put these into practice, here are just a few strategies you may want to implement (or re-implement) at your church to keep the church database in good health:

Create Data Entry Standards

Any organization with an active database should have a set of data entry standards. If your church doesn’t have one, set up a meeting with your primary database users and create a document of guidelines. If you already have a set of standards, perhaps revisit it to make sure that the guidelines are adequate and being followed.

Wondering why you need these rules? Abiding by a set of data entry standards should improve data accuracy and reduce the risk of duplicate entries. Your rules can also help you maximize your system’s functionality. For example, if you have a rule that members’ formal names and nicknames should always be entered into the system in their proper fields, you won’t end up with a “James Smith” and a “Jimmy Smith.” And you’ll be able to take advantage of the Auto Fill feature that automatically populates your formal and informal mailing name and salutation fields, giving you even greater flexibility in how you address your member communications.

You’ll also need standards for entering addresses and phone numbers. For example, you’ll have to decide whether street abbreviations should be entered with periods (St., Ave., Dr.,) or without (St, Ave, Dr). Having consistency in these details should help you when sorting, filtering, searching, and, in general, navigating the database. Using clear examples in your guidelines helps staff understand the rules quickly. For example, you might show the correct and incorrect formats for titles:

Yes St., Ave., Dr. (abbreviate with periods)
No St, Street, Ave, Avenue, Dr, Drive
Yes 555 444 1234, +1 415 599 2671 (no punctuation except with country codes)
No (555) 444-1234, 555.444.1234

Your internal documentation also gives you a place to spell out guidelines for fields that require staff to make an on-the-spot decision, like member statuses, family registration status, or what should be recorded in the “General Notes” versus the more confidential “Pastoral Notes” (which require special permission to see) in your system.

Train for the Job

Appropriate staff training goes hand in hand with having great data entry standards. Before you allow staff members to access the database, you’ll want to cover two important training checkpoints:

1. Instruct staff on how to enter data and provide them with an easy-to-reference copy of the guidelines.
2. Make sure new staff get formal product training to support your church’s best practices and data entry standards in either our hands-on Virtual Classroom format or on-demand Video Lessons.

Staff will learn how to get the most from their software as they use the tools in their day-to-day work. They’ll also gain a big-picture understanding of how the whole system works together and how their work impacts others in your office.

As you instruct staff, be sure to cover what follow-up action needs to happen when information arrives in an incomplete form. For example, if a new family joins your church but hasn’t provided member email addresses and birth dates, pick up the phone and ask for the information you need. When your church is able to use that information to care for those people and keep in touch, you’ll be glad you took the time.

Remember, implementing data entry training should empower your staff. The training should answer seemingly “silly” questions about formalities and punctuation markers, clear up confusions, and testify to the importance of having accurate, consistent data.

Implement a Yearly Refresher Course

If you have staff members who’ve been doing your data entry for years, it may seem a little awkward to start up a yearly refresher course on data entry, but if you spin it the right way, it could really benefit the team (and the database!). Even senior staff forget things or develop bad habits, so the refresher course (probably just a 1- to 2-hour long seminar) is for them just as much as it is for the new staff.

Tell staff that the purpose of the course is to fine-tune your best practices for data management . . . to ensure that everyone is on the same page and provide an opportunity to voice any questions or concerns with the current rules and practices. Set the expectation that you’ll all be learning from each other. You’re likely to discover that some rules that once made sense no longer do and should be updated. A scheduled refresher course gives you a forum in which to bring these issues to light, keep staff involved and informed, and make changes with valuable input from the whole team.

Elect a Database Owner

If you already know who this person is, great! If not, you’ll want to select a staff member to be the point person when it comes to the church database. This staff member should be able to answer questions about the database, data standards, and have the final say on all database-related issues. Having someone elected to make these calls, along with a great set of data entry standards and appropriate job training punctuated with timely refresher courses, should help keep the church database in great shape longterm!

We’re wishing you the best with your database this year! Here’s to keeping your data in shape for the whole of 2015 and beyond!