What’s Plaguing Associations

I recently conducted an unscientific poll of clients and contacts, asking them one simple question: What database issue are you being challenged with right now?

More than 120 responded. Interestingly, the answers fell almost evenly into five broad categories:

  • Reporting/querying 26%
  • Data integrity 20%
  • Web integration 20%
  • Integration of multiple data sources 17%
  • Training/documentation 16%


Since cavemen scratched words on rocks, getting data out of the database has been a challenge. The simple truth is, any data you have in your database is useless if you can’t get the data out. Many assns are facing this problem. One respondent said his assn’s biggest challenge is “getting good, informational data out of the database easily. We are limited and cannot ‘pull’ individuals by certain criteria easily.”

This is a frequent complaint, and there are several reasons for this:

  • There is no simple tool available to staff to actually query the database. For example, some off-the-shelf database systems restrict users to using the query tool provided by the vendor, but the tool does not have access to all of the fields in the database. This is a design weakness that needs to be addressed by the vendor.
  • Staff doesn’t know how to query the database. In this case, there might be tools available to query most fields in the database, but staff either doesn’t know how to use the tool or staff doesn’t understand the database well enough to query intelligently. In either case, this is a training issue (#5 above) and can be addressed with proper resources.

Data integrity:

Data integrity is the second-most common concern of database managers in the poll. As one respondent put it, “I am sick to death of getting data pulls that are full of trash. Why is it I’m the only one how seems to catch it, or cares?”

She asks a good question: Why is she the only one who is catching data errors, or seems to care that there are errors? It could be staff doesn’t feel the impact of bad data when it occurs; that is they don’t experience the consequences of bad data. For example, if an e-mail goes out that has a 20% bounce back rate, who does that affect or impact? It should impact anyone depending on that data to deliver more product sales, more membership, or more event registrations. But too often those responsible for marketing assn products are allowed to say “The marketing failed because our lists were bad.” All staff who use data should be held responsible for keeping that data clean. Clean data is not just the responsibility of the membership or database manager.

There is also a training issue here. Staff need to be trained to understand the impact of bad data. They also need to be trained on how to clean up data when they find errors. And they need to have these principles reinforced repeatedly and frequently. In other words, this is not a “train them once and forget it” concept.

Web integration:

One of the highest priorities of assns that are searching for a new database invariably is integrating their database to their web site. By integration, they typically mean allowing members and customers to come to the assn web site to join or renew membership, register for events and purchase assn products. Respondents to the survey agreed, saying that their biggest challenges included “web-backend integration” and “web site/database integration issues.”

There is no question that integration of your database to the web site is a critical issue. Allowing your members and customers to go online and manage their records, purchase products and services, and communicate with the assn and with other members can provide an incredible productivity boost. For example, with good web integration, an assn was able to improve its membership fulfillment process turnaround time from six weeks to two days!

In addition to productivity increase, today’s members and customers expect to be able to do business with your organization via your web site. Assns that have not integrated are already behind the curve.

Most of the AMS products available today take into account web integration. But some do it better than others. When working with existing vendors or new vendors, assns need to communicate clearly to their vendors what they expect web integration to look like. That starts with understanding what you want your web site to do (web strategy) for your organization.

Integration of multiple data sources

“Lack of integration between multiple databases and the ensuing problems” is how one respondent characterized her issues with her assn’s database. I suspect this problem is actually more prominent than it appears in this survey, but many assns might not be aware of it.

For a variety of reasons, many assns use third-party products (such as online tools for event registration or grass-roots advocacy) that are separate from their primary membership database. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this practice. Unfortunately, too often assns introduce these third-party products without giving consideration to how, or in what ways, the data from the third-party system should interact with the primary database.

When implementing a third-party data management system, assns need to ask the following questions:

  • What data will the third-party system manage that I want to have back in my primary database?
  • How will I get that data back into the primary database?
  • Is there data from my primary database that needs to feed into the third-party system? If so, what data is it, and how will that data get from the primary database to the third party system?
  • When data changes occur in either system, how will they be communicated to the other system?

Too often assns either don’t consider these questions, or assume that they will work themselves out after the systems are live. In my experience, if these questions aren’t answered before the systems are implemented, they’ll never be addressed, and the assn will always struggle with reconciling multiple systems.


Issues of training and documentation were last on the list. But as noted in Part 1, training has an impact on querying and reporting as well as on data integrity.

The reality is that training is given plenty of lip service by assns, but is always the first to be cut when budgets get tight. The irony is that assns could actually lower their long-term data management costs by investing in regular training and spending some resources on documenting their procedures.

For example, one respondent wrote, “One person was allowed to have extensive training on the database and now they’ve left the organization. And we’re scrambling.” How much do you suppose the assn saved when they decided to only train one person? And now, how much is the assn spending (wasting) trying to figure out how to use the system, making errors, annoying customers, and possibly negatively impacting sales?

Assns continue to struggle with their data management systems. Those that are most successful are addressing these five issues regularly and consistently.

This article originally appeared in the August 8, 2007 issue of Association Trends. Reprinted with permission.


If you’d like to learn more about how EDM can help you with your data management challenges, contact me at (540)-338-9404 or email me at wes@effectiveedatabase.com.

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