Before thinking about CiviCRM structure, it is important to think about the systems you currently have in place to store and organise your data. Your data could be stored in a spreadsheets, another database or CRM (i.e. Constant Contact, Convio or The Raiser's Edge), paper files or in someone's memory. In thinking about your contacts and their interactions with your organisation, talk to your co-workers, including those who have been around the longest and those who have just joined. Talk to as many people as possible to get a complete picture of their interactions with all kinds of contacts.
Many organisations make the mistake of not thinking about who their contacts actually are. Spend some time identifying all the people involved with your organisation. What different types of people do you interact with, and how do they differ from each other? The better you understand them and their interactions with your organisation, the better you can model them in CiviCRM. Anecdotal or systematic feedback from your contacts may be useful.
Here are some important questions to ask yourself about your current data:
CiviCRM has been designed to be flexible and adaptable, based on feedback from many different non-profits, but it may not map exactly to the ways that your organisation currently works. Doing things the CiviCRM way could mean adapting your workflow and adopting best practices in non-profit technology. Be pragmatic and flexible and consider whether your current working practices need to change.
It's worth remembering that CiviCRM offers many opportunities to interact with your contacts in ways that you have not previously had. Taking advantage of these new possibilities can lead to positive changes and improvements.
It might be useful to think about your pre-existing data in the same way as the contents of a house or apartment when you need to move. People often use moving as a chance to say, "Do we really need this? This stuff is too old; let's trash it and get some new stuff once we have moved in."
To apply this metaphor to your data, look for data that have no purpose, such as old organisational divisions that you've abandoned or office locations in a facility you no longer occupy.
Some old data will have continuing value. For instance, one organisation in a financial pinch decided to use an old list of founding donors who had not given money for many years. It turned out that these lapsed donors still had strong emotional ties to the organisation that they had founded and they came to its financial rescue. In that case, saving old data was crucial.
Moving to a new living space doesn't just provide an opportunity to evaluate what's really important to keep and what can be left behind; it also gives you a chance to clean up everything that you do decide to take with you. Just as you wouldn't pack up dusty picture frames and dirty dishes because that would make your nice new clean place as dirty as your old place, you'll want to clean up your data before moving it into CiviCRM so that you're starting off with as clean and useful a database as possible. You can read more about this in chapter "Mapping your data into CiviCRM".
Also, in planning for a move to CiviCRM, prepare to spend a good amount of time looking at your old data; standardising how different elements of contacts' records are stored (e.g. are states entered as NY or New York?) and deleting obvious duplicates, accidental entries, outdated information, and corrupted records.
The following chapters will help you understand what data CiviCRM can store and how the best to map your existing records into CiviCRM structure.