Problems of alignment
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Apr 2010 to Jul 2013
How do we make sure our technical tools support, and align ideologically, with the organization's mission?
“We have so many duplicate contact records, if I were to merge each one, the work would take over 80 years,” a colleague reported. Clearly, that was not going to happen. Nor would it really have served the organization’s mission: to defend the rights of technology users. But we did want to respect someone’s deeply personal decision to donate and that meant not misunderstanding or misrepresenting their history with the organization.
I had been working at EFF for over a year by the time my colleague put this problem on my table. When I arrived, no one on staff could say who our donors really were and what motivated them to give. Out of curiosity and a desire to thank them personally for supporting our work, I had started inviting community members over to the office, to say hi at conferences, to happy hours, and to court hearings. They were professionals, personally passionate and deeply engaged in the cause, often working on the technology and sometimes even on the cases that kept EFF busy. All of them would have forgiven us if our fundraising team accidentally reached out twice in the same day. But we could do better and we did.
I started by writing down all touchpoints that rely on data from our very unreliable donor database. The list included newsletters, event invitations, and different kinds of fundraising related communications. I also made sure the board relied on donation and donor numbers from our far more reliable accounting database. So I could prioritize only those points where the duplicate issue might actually affect someone outside staff. I also took time to hear from more technical staff on the usefulness of scripting the dedupe process. The results of those brainstorms was: no. It usually requires personal knowledge to know whether this donor is the same as that other donor record.
Instead of creating lists on the fly, we transitioned to persistent lists. And before sending a communication, we began the arduous process of de-duplicating records. But at least we knew we were investing these efforts in only those contacts who still wanted to hear from us. And we reduced the scope of the problem to one that in practice, only affected a small portion of the records in our database. The rest? Let them sit quietly in the background. It served the organization better for my team to enjoy a conversation with our community members about how they can help with an upcoming campaign than for us to spend 80 years de-duplicating stale records.