Broad, Odd, Unclear: Are User Questions A Database Admin's Best Friend?

A database administrator is more than a keeper of information or coordinator of process. You’re also a guide to how data is understood and used within your nonprofit. You probably know well: the more your team understands your role and the fundamentals of your database, the better prepared everyone is to put it to work. In our view, that's part of what makes databases a living practice... the learning is ongoing, adapting as your team and work do.

Sometimes the best moments for learning come from the broad, odd, or unclear questions your colleagues ask.

Many nonprofits tend to think about database learning in formal ways: staff trainings, webinars, documentation, and so on. But sometimes the best moments for learning come from the smallest, odd, or unclear questions your colleagues ask. Recently, in the Database Sherpa Practice Group, we had a great discussion about how some of the basic questions users asked actually revealed deeper needs or common misunderstandings about how databases work. This can be frustrating as an administrator—especially if you've devoted energy to showing your team how the database works!

But rather than thinking of these questions as a point of failure, we believe a more mindful approach is to take the questions and run with them... using them as a doorway into getting to know your users, gauging what training is sticking or not, and reorienting your team to how your database works and why.

Broad, Odd, Unclear: Some of Our Favorite Questions

Here are some questions from users that often suggest they're curious about something deeper, or want clarification on something else, but just don't know what they're really asking for or what keywords will help you understand:

  • How many accounts or contacts are in our database?

  • How many email addresses have we collected?

  • How many people have we served who are in underrepresented communities?

  • How many people are successful because of our organization?

  • Can you give me a report that shows how our programs are meeting our mission?

If you’ve been asked one of these questions on the fly in the hallway, during a fundraising committee meeting, or elsewhere, you know they tend to pop up unexpectedly and leave the feeling of: What does this person really want to know? And if you’re working with intention, you know that even if you give them the answer directly, it’s really not the full picture—and probably not the information they need to help with whatever decision they’re making.

For example, asking for an overall number of contacts is not very helpful if your database includes a mix of donors, volunteers, vendors, members, or other relationship types. As the steward of the database, it’s your job to help people navigate those differences. But how do you approach this conversation with a listening ear… and without making the user feel like they’re getting schooled in Your Nonprofit’s Database 101 every time they want some essential info?

Three Ways to Get to the Heart of Unclear Questions


Compassionate Reminder

Don’t take it personally when someone still approaches you with questions that feel off, too general, or unhelpful. Training team members, volunteers, and others can be one of the most persistent (and often invisible!) parts of a database administrator’s job… even though these questions can trigger impatience, we try to approach them as a sign that your team is trying to adopt the tools you’ve put in place.

But yes, it’s okay to get frustrated! If you feel frustration rising, try not to direct it at the person who asked for the information. Instead, buy yourself some time, with a response like: “That’s a good question, but I’d like to gather a bit more information for you before I share a number. Can you give me an hour or two?” and then go scream in your office.

ONE: Instance TOURS

Questions like “How many contacts do we have?” are a great example of why hosting users for instance tours is a proactive, helpful practice. As a database administrator, you know your instance is about so much more than the front-end of Salesforce where program staff, fund development managers, volunteer managers, and others enter data. But often you’re the only one privy to the important back-end of the relationship to data. Instance tours give you a chance to share some of that knowledge and nurture some back-up knowledge on your team.

TWO: Meet questions with questions

When you’re ready to engage more deeply with your teammate, we recommend asking some key follow-up questions. These can help them understand the system is much more than they might be thinking about, and these follow-ups can also help unlock the learning you have already given them. Guide them as much as you are able, taking breaks to breathe between questions and spend time listening to them.

Try for open-ended questions, so you can listen intently to their reply and the words they use—rather than questions that would generate only a “yes” or “no” reply. Here are some possibilities:

  • You said you needed the total number of contacts. We have many types of contact in the database. Could you tell me more about what kind of person you have in mind?

  • As you know, we’ve got a lot of information in Salesforce that can be used in different ways. Were you asking about this data for a specific project or just for a general understanding?

  • You were wondering about the email addresses we’ve collected. It would be helpful to know more about how you’re hoping to use email addresses so I can help you find accurate data. Can you tell me more about the project that will be using email addresses?

  • You know we track a lot of demographic data. It would be helpful to know more about what you were thinking about when you said “underrepresented communities". Can you please explain this to me?

Three: let them “Drive”

If the person asking is involved in a more hands-on way with the database (for instance, a staff member rather than a board member), always keep Salesforce in front of you as you work through the question. Make it a point to have your teammate navigate around the database. This helps empower them to be more engaged in finding the answer. It also gives you a chance to notice how they’re using the system, what’s intuitive or not, where extra documentation might be helpful, etc. Sometimes frequent, unclear questions from staff can be solved with just a few lines of documentation… but you won’t know unless you make space for watching how they use Salesforce. Here’s how one scenario might go:

You: “Okay, I’m ready to talk now. You asked how many contacts are in our database, but I need a little more from you to help answer that question. Do you remember that tour we took last week? When I showed you the contacts and the type field on the contact?”

Colleague: “Ummmm, I think so. Was that where you could pick ‘vendor’ and ‘foundation’?”

You: “No, that’s on the Account.”

Colleague: “Oh right, I’m better at seeing it than talking about it.”

You: “No problem. Let’s look at it. Why don’t you log into Salesforce, and let’s look around together.”

Colleague: “Okay. So, here, see this is a contact. I want to know how many of them we have in Salesforce.”

You: “Sure, remember this field, the type on the contact?”

Colleague: “Oh yeah, we don’t have member in that Type field. I want all the contacts that were and are currently members.”

AH HA! Eureka. The gold has been found.

So, next time someone asks you a seemingly simple or unfocused question like “How many contacts do we have?” — take a moment to center yourself and try to find a way to make this a learning opportunity with your Salesforce instance. We would love to hear more about the unclear, unusual, odd, frustrating, and impatience-inducing questions your hear. Leave yours in the comments or drop us a note so we can offer support on this blog in the future!

This post was inspired and shaped by participants in the Database Sherpa Practice Group, a place where system administrators come together and discuss technical as well as non-technical topics. The conversation started in our online forum when one of the participants, who was frustrated with the constant question, asked how others approach this type of question. On our monthly call, the conversation continued. It was really quite lovely how the group helped each other. Many thanks to those participants for their generosity in listening and learning together!

Are you looking for ongoing support and camaraderie for issues like these? A new practice group is forming soon. Please reach out to Ashima to join the waiting list.