Like most people, I associate Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s anthemSongsfromtheSouth about the Gurindji people sparking that nation’s indigenous land rights movement with data entry.  The song is called From Little Things, Big Things Grow, and it’s quite amazing for its original purpose as a protest song.  That sentence, though – From little things, big things grow – has been running through my mind as I think about nonprofits getting the database tools they need and turning little daily bits of info into big, powerful assets.

Sometimes, early in a new database project, there’s a giddiness about how the new database solution is going to be the solution to all manner of problems the database can’t solve:  user buy-in, a data-driven culture, a sense of the database as a collective good, not the property of individual programs or departments.   In some of these cases, as the project goes along, we get to a moment in which someone says “Wait a minute.  Who’s going to enter all of this data?”  This is a moment of truth.  The right answer usually calls for a shift from hoping data entry is someone else’s job to acknowledging that everyone has little bits that they can add  to the (lower case) information system in the organization.  

Maybe this belief derives from the accounting and fundraising systems that are often the most capable and well-used systems in nonprofits.  Specialists record all of the little transactions that add up to the income statements, the budget projections, the fundraising actual vs. goal reports.  Then, these gems are released into the rest of the organization.  With data about mission, though, there is no specific specialist.  More often, multiple people work on the core mission and therefore have and use the information about clients/patrons/volunteers.   Therefore, we have to ask multiple people to plant their seeds of data on a day to day basis.  There has to be someone – call her CIO, database administrator, IT coordinator – who oversees the work.  That position, though, ensures good structural, agency-wide decision making (garden planning) and focuses on quality control (weeding); good information is too big to hope one person can make it happen.   The only way to grow big things is to have many, many hands contribute their little things.

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