Management in the Not for Profit Organization

Dedicated to Exploring the Philosophies and Techniques of Management in the Non-Profit Sector

Time for a Spreadsheet Intervention?
The Critical Importance of Organizational Memory

We’ve all seen them – spreadsheets that have gotten out of hand; with columns going on into infinity. Some nonprofits rely on them entirely, with their organization’s data scattered across dozens of spreadsheets. How can anyone possibly use this information? That’s the problem: they can’t! Keeping information in a spreadsheet is like archiving it. You might as well pack it away in a box and store it in the basement to collect dust.

So, what’s the problem? Well, the accumulation of your organization’s data or “organizational memory” can be instrumental to its success, but only if that information is usable. So, it may be time for a spreadsheet intervention.

The Importance of Organizational Memory

Text Box: If an organization is to learn anything, 
then the distribution of its memory, 
the accuracy of that memory, and 
the conditions under which that memory 
is treated as a constraint become crucial 
characteristics of organizing.
Karl E. Weick 
Consider, for a moment, the importance that memory plays in every aspect of your life: in building relationships, working, or perfecting a recipe for something you like to cook. In whatever you do, memory helps you improve decisions and avoid problems. It works the same for organizations. For decades, big business has appreciated the importance of what is termed “Organizational Memory”, and it is just as important to nonprofits.

Organizational Memory is defined as “the accumulated body of data, information, and knowledge created in the course of an individual organization’s existence.” [From Wikipedia. Available here.] That body of knowledge is incredibly valuable, helping organizations do just what it helps individuals do in everyday life: improve decisions and avoid problems.

Why Spreadsheets Just Don’t Cut it

Text Box: Those who cannot remember the past are 
condemned to repeat it. 
George Santayana
If you use spreadsheets to store that body of knowledge, however, the benefit is lost. Information captured in spreadsheets is static and one-dimensional, so organizational memory is lacking in richness. Also, once data is captured, it’s hard to use and manipulate. For example, while you can easily gather a simple list of donations from last year, anything more complicated than that is a nightmare.

With spreadsheets, therefore, organizational memory is so limited and difficult to use that it isn’t really much help at all. That body of knowledge that is critical to improving decisions and avoiding catastrophe is lost; archived away. And with no organizational recollection of the past, your organization is missing out on valuable opportunities to learn from and build on your collective experience.

The Integrated Database: Creating Rich, Accessible Organizational Memory

With an integrated database, on the other hand, your organization’s data is captured in a dynamic way that enables rich organizational memory. Think of the integrated database as the brain of your organization. It has a section for each type of information: contacts, communications, donations, events and so forth. Because each section is capable of communicating with the others, you have access to much more than a simple list of donations. You can see what event it was associated with it, what fundraising letter brought in the donations and anything else you can think of that will help with your analysis.

With an integrated database, therefore, one dimensional information gives way to rich organizational memory that allows you to see the bigger picture. And this information is at your fingertips at any time. Just do a simple search and there it is: data from the past helping you make better decisions for the future!


Sumac is a complete, integrated nonprofit database that holds rich organizational memory on every aspect of your organization, helping you learn from experience and be more successful.