Expert Roundtable: Database Conversion
This Q&A session originally appeared as a blog post from TJ Hillinger, Vice President at Avalon Consulting. It was then re-printed in the DMAW Monthly Newsletter.
How do you recognize that it’s time to undertake a database conversion?
Steve: If your current system keeps you from executing your strongest fundraising program, it’s time to move to a new system. For example, if your organization is expanding into new fundraising channels, but your database system prevents you from maximizing revenue and donor engagement, it’s time to convert.
Sometimes the problem lies with users who have not been trained properly. If you have a system that can do what you require, but fundraisers do not understand how to do it, invest in training, not conversion. Also, consider how your current vendor may be able to meet new user demands before you convert. It may be more efficient to make the most of your existing system, instead of converting to a new one.
Gina: Necessity is the best and most compelling reason to convert a database—so if your current system is being sunsetted (more and more common these days!) or has reached its capacity to handle your data needs, then it’s time to convert. If your system is unable to easily integrate with the communications channels and systems you rely on to achieve your business goals and mission effectively, you must move on.
John: A good reason to convert is if you need a system with greater functionality specifically designed for direct response fundraising, with online CRM and an email platform integrated into the database.
Rose: When your current database system is prohibiting your organization from meeting its cash flow and/or business processes, you know it’s time to move on. But don’t move to a new system just for the shiny new stuff! You’ll regret it.
So you’ve decided to make the move—what comes next?
All four experts agreed that the significance of database conversion cannot be overstated.
Rose: Identify all of the key players/stakeholders who should be involved in the process—and get their commitment to see the project through to the end. Because of the time involved, staff can sometimes change midstream, so use both a managing company and an on-staff project manager to oversee the conversion.
Gina: Make sure that your organization’s leadership understands the vision behind choosing a new database system, and that they fully back the project and the time and effort that will need to be allocated to make the conversion a successful one. Your leadership needs to share that vision with the whole user community to ensure a smooth transition and enthusiastic user adoption. And make sure you prioritize the areas that drive the majority of your revenue now and will enable your future growth with a new database system.
Steve: Nail down your reasons for moving the database and create a prioritized list of must-haves to help choose a vendor. A mistake nonprofits often make in the database conversion process is to underestimate the investment of time and resources it requires. So build a project plan, including realistic estimates of human and financial resources required and contingency budgets for unexpected complications. Because they will happen. Without support, existing staff cannot oversee a conversion while maintaining day-to-day duties. Success is more likely if you make appropriate investments in the conversion. And that can only happen with everyone on board with the project.
John: When you’re ready to start looking for a new vendor, make sure you do a comprehensive needs assessment. Because identifying a database and platform that can most closely meet your long-term business needs will prevent the angst of buyer/user remorse. This is where you need to be a pragmatist—go in with realistic expectations about functionality, cost, and conversion.
In your experience, what is a realistic time frame for a database conversion?
Our experts—all veterans of database conversions—have differing experience on conversion time frames. But they all agree on one thing: It is important to have realistic expectations and to have a well-documented process to ensure your goals are met.
Gina: A conversion can be done in six months, but only with a solid and well-documented implementation plan to ensure that vendor and client have a laser focus on the conversion, so they can meet all of the critical milestones that are part of a successful conversion. Strong project managers with great communications skills are also a vital component to an on-time delivery. And as are well-set expectations. I feel strongly that the longer a conversion lasts, the more likelihood of unnecessary scope creep. An organization’s staff will lose focus, energy, and enthusiasm for the project (and potentially even quit).
Steve: A balance needs to be struck between finding the perfect solution and protracting the timeline of a conversion to the point that it becomes a pain point for your organization. Be thorough and careful with your decisions, but avoid procrastinating because decisions are difficult or because you’re not able to build 100% consensus.
John: Listen to the database vendor—they should be very detailed when scoping out the project and delivering a realistic timeline. Don’t try to cut the timeline short, or you will reap what you sow.
Rose: If you get the right combination of folks, my guesstimate would be that a conversion takes a minimum of two years—that’s from the moment you make the decision to convert, to the time when the new system is installed and implemented. After implementation, I’d say it takes another year for change management.
Steve: Anticipate delays and plan for them. For example, staff departures can create significant delays and increases in cost. But there’s a shelf life on patience for a conversion. The longer the process takes, the likelier stakeholders will lose confidence in the outcome and tire of waiting. A steady focus and dedication to completing the project in a reasonable amount of time will result in a better outcome.
What else should we consider?
Steve: Few nonprofits have individuals on staff who have gone through a conversion before, much less led one. If you have staff who have navigated or overseen a conversion, these folks will be your biggest asset as you move forward. Make sure to call on those with prior experience and do not be afraid to invest in external expertise. Conversion is one of the most important decisions your organization will make.
Gina: Check references! I’ve heard so many industry horror stories about implementations lasting two to three years and going over budget by hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. These stories are so common—and failed conversion not only impacts your bottom line, it can be disastrous to your marketing programs, the morale and tenure of your employees, and even long-term mission goals. Do your homework now so you don’t get stuck trying to implement a database platform with a company with a bad track record.
Steve: Form a conversion committee to include finance, development, executives, IT, and your existing vendors. And talk it through: If revenue hinges on a perfect conversion, you may be assuming too much risk. (And never plan to go live during peak fundraising seasons.)
Any parting thoughts?
John: Relax and sit back. The whole database conversion process is always a bumpy ride full of twists and turns.
Gina: The conversion process is one of the best opportunities to step back and evaluate your programs and processes—and where they are weak—to improve upon them. Take advantage of that opportunity. One of the best things one of my clients recently told me, after going through a conversion, that it was one of the most enjoyable and fun experiences she has had. So breathe deep, relax, take your database conversion head on, and make sure you have fun in the process!
What is typically the biggest unknown/surprise/unexpected finding when it comes to a database conversion?
Steve: Database companies often boast that they can integrate with any tool—but it’s best to confirm and validate this well before the conversion happens. The worst surprise is to find out that your new system doesn’t actually integrate with your other tools. To avoid this, ask for references from other groups who have successfully integrated with the tools your organization uses. Also, tools and functionality referenced during demonstrations of the new database may turn out to be difficult or impossible to implement for your particular program. Make sure your contract includes complete itemization of every deliverable, and that the database company’s team is always available for questions and clarifications.
Also, to ensure the cost of conversion does not exceed plans and expectations, create a five-year cost estimate for all of your vendor options. Have each of your vendors validate your estimates—and integrate these estimates into your contract. This can help prevent cost overruns down the line.
Gina: Conversions are like a box of chocolates—each one is unique and every one comes with a surprise or two. We continue to learn from each conversion and continually strive to improve our implementation process.
Having smart people on the implementation team helps an organization understand what it has been doing well and how it might do things better, and unpack and fully document its new business rules. This makes for a smooth and even fun conversion. Most importantly, during a conversion, the company must be flexible and have a CRM application that can accommodate a variety of unique customization and integration needs.
John: Surprise: Post-conversion clean-up takes longer than you expect! Unknown: The new database impacts functionality in another part of your organization, which impacts your expenses (a good example is if the database is more difficult to use than anticipated, thus increasing gift-processing expenses). Unexpected finding:Customizations to the database were not fully scoped out because there was not enough money to build out the needed functionality. Thoroughly research all items when planning your conversion.
Rose: For me, the biggest surprise is always the tremendous amount of time a database conversion takes and the enormous number of details involved.
Can you share an example of big lesson learned through a conversion, and how to avoid missteps where possible?
John: Avoid customization, if you can, because it is a slippery slope—it is expensive and does not always work the way you expect it to.
Gina: We have learned that it is critical to document the decisions that are being made around business processes as the conversion is happening. It is so important to be able to look back after a conversion—in the short term and over the long term—to understand the business processes and any necessary customizations that have been made to the CRM application to accommodate those processes. If someone from the organization were to leave, these documents are critical in helping a new hire get up to speed on the decisions that were made during the conversion process.
As for avoiding missteps, the most important thing is constant and effective communication, with both the client and the company clearly defining and mutually agreeing upon the roles and responsibilities that each team member will have during the implementation.
Rose: The biggest lesson my team and I learned was that our timeline was unrealistic.
Steve: To me, the biggest lesson learned is that if ownership in the project—the good and challenging aspects alike—is not shared, conflict can arise as issues crop up, leaving your internal conversion team to complete the work in isolation. Most important to a successful conversion is true transparency and open communication. Engage all stakeholders at regular intervals to ensure expectations are in line with reality. When expectations fall out of step with current events, disappointments can follow, which can lead to a lack of confidence in the tool before the new system is even brought on line.
What do you recommend post-conversion to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible?
Gina: The job is not done when the new database goes live. I think the two most important aspects post-conversion are user adoption and planning your future growth.
User adoption across the organization is key to the success of a new CRM, and it must be an organizational priority during and after the conversion process. Proper training throughout the organization ensures that the client’s staff knows how to best use our application—best accomplished through one-on-one and group training. In terms of future growth, work early on in the relationship with your database company to invest yourself in becoming a part of that company’s user community, understand their product roadmap, and be a voice that helps guide the development of their platform.
Steve: As Gina said, a conversion isn’t over once you’ve gone live, so make that clear throughout the process. If stakeholders assume the hard work is done when you go live, confidence in the system can sour. You will need to refine and revisit many of your procedures and business rules after the system is up and running. The refinements can continue for another year or two after you go live. It’s valuable that users understand this going into the conversion. And of course, nothing is more important than training. Training must be mandatory. Users must fully understand how to utilize your new tool.
John: Yes, manage expectations with all staff to make them aware that it will take about a year for the post-conversion clean-up to be complete. This is especially true if you are merging multiple databases into one. I’ve found it best to offer multiple/flexible training opportunities for staff. As they start working in the database, there will be many times when they will run into obstacles or questions, so it’s necessary to have a dedicated account person available from the database company to answer all questions that come up.
Rose: Again, make sure you have the right mix of people on the team—stakeholders, users, database company, etc.
Any other thoughts?
Steve: There’s a balance that needs to be struck between finding the perfect solution and protracting the timeline of a conversion to the point that it becomes a pain point for your organization. Be thorough and careful with your decisions, but avoid procrastination because decisions are difficult or because you’re not able to build 100% consensus.
Gina: A database conversion is one of the most important decisions that an organization can undertake. Some have said that, from a marketing standpoint, a good database—one that helps you do your job better and more efficiently—is a nonprofit organization’s most valuable asset. The conversion process is a great opportunity to step back and evaluate your programs and processes, identify weaknesses, and improve upon them. Take advantage of that opportunity.