Learn to Love Fixing Your Reports

Learn to Love Fixing Your Reports

So you’ve just migrated to a new CRM, or implemented a major change to your database and excitedly you decide to run some important reports on fundraising or program participation. But the first time you do – everything looks wrong! “Why did we just spend all this money,” you start to ask. “My reports need to be correct and reliable!” Well, of course that’s the point of reporting – to have a clear and accurate reflection of various slices of your constituents’ information. However in practice that’s rarely what you get the first time you go to create a report, especially on new data or especially after you’ve just migrated to a new CRM. You must often go track down some missing or bad data or you need to control for more variables in your data than you anticipated at first.

Reports reflect the status of your data and your understanding of it, so a report that looks “wrong” to you is usually an indication that you and your organization need to do some learning. You’ll find that what you learn drives efficiency and mutual understanding among departments. It’s part of a vital exercise which serves to improve the overall effectiveness of what your organization does.

Crafting filters and output columns for reports is usually an iterative process. It’s difficult to get just the right mix of filters and filter logic in place the first time out unless your report goal is very simple. Reports continually challenge us to better manage the quality of our data and better understand the relationships among data tables. On top of that, there are often exceptions or outlier cases to solve for in order to get everything to appear correctly in your report’s output. There are even some complex cases where a single report is not sufficient and you must create a dashboard, export and combine reports or use specialized tools such as Multi-Step Reporting. It may even be the case that you need a new field, data relationship, or piece of code in your database to give you what you want.

Here are some common things to check on in order to start making your reports work for you:

  • Check your Report Type – With Salesforce (and many other CRM systems) you must start with a report type. Contacts with Opportunities or Campaigns with Campaign Members are two examples. You need to understand what slice of your database, and what data relations, are represented by making these choices.
  • Check Common Filters – Double check your date filter settings and the “Show” drop-down menu which controls if you’re seeing just your own records or all records in the database.
  • Use the Correct Fields for the Correct Objects – It can be really easy to mistake an Account or Organization Last Gift field for a Contact field and vice versa. Double check that you’re including the right output fields or filtering on the correct fields in your report.
  • Examine Filter Logic – Complex filtering can be difficult to format correctly. Sometimes simply a missing parenthesis can make all the different or just needing to change an AND for an OR. If you get stuck, if can help to remove all filter logic and slowly re-create it one step at a time while you check the results as you go.
  • Reconcile with Known Data Sources – Sometimes the problems stem from variations in data entry or tracking that can only be fixed by reconciling what your report is telling you with what your bookkeeper has in your accounting system for example. Yes, this can mean a line-by-line comparison but once you’ve gone through that exercise you’ll be able to start making the changes necessary to see all your records in your report again. This can often be the method to employ to discover how data relationships are being modelled in your database – especially true of complex revenue data.
  • Split Reports Up – There are some cases where it may just be easier to split your wildly complex uber report into several more simple ones. If you’re trying to get lots of detailed information together in one place it might also be an indication that you really should be creating a dashboard. An example might be wanting to see single donations alongside payments toward pledges and matching gifts all together. Why not create a single report for each type of revenue?

Ultimately, reports are a mirror for your organization to look into. But to get the clearest picture you need to take the time to fully understand your business processes and the data model applied in your CRM. Although it can take considerable time, it’s a very necessary step for an organization to take in order to get the most out of your database. The next time someone says that they can’t get the right information in their report, you’ll know you have a chance to make a positive improvement at your organization.

Sam Knox

About Sam Knox

Sam has ten years experience in nonprofit consulting, including project management on website and CRM projects. He specializes in Salesforce administration, data analysis, email marketing, and end user training. He resides in Seattle, Washington.


  1. Susan Kenna Wright

    One of the first things I loved about Salesforce is that the report filter criteria are right there at the top, for everyone to see. This way, when two people think they have different answers to the same question, all you have to do is look at the criteria to discover the reason for the discrepancy.

  2. For new Salesforce users, selecting a Report Type can be a daunting task. If you aren’t sure which to pick, click through a few to test them out. Trial and error is a great way to learn!

  3. Marcelo Keppy

    These are excellent tips! I’d also say that adding too much detail on a report doesn’t necessarily means that it will be better. Too much detail can be overwhelming and may deviate from the main reason for running a particular report. “Plan” carefully and share only the necessary info that will help to make a good and quicker decisions.

  4. These are such great tips! Another issue I’ve run into is when two people are looking for the same information, but end up getting different results. The biggest culprit I’ve witnessed in this situation is disparate gift types. So always make sure you’re clear when running a report on whether to include just cash, cash and pledges, gift-in-kind, matching gifts, etc. Aligning those fields will definitely help get the numbers closer together.

  5. I see the checking common filters problem all the time! People can’t figure out why things aren’t showing and it is filtered to only show “my” records. Related to that (at least in Salesforce) I would also recommend checking your security structure. If records or fields are set up to visible only to certain people or groups, then reports might look different for one person versus the administrator.

  6. Keith Heller

    Great post Sam! Reports are near and dear to my heart (but that’s true for everyone, right?) Really they are the whole point of having a CRM! Okay, one of two points. First is the ability to generate their near cousin – great lists. Lists of constituents who have similar traits or want to hear about certain aspects of your mission or want to receive communications through certain channels or who want (or may want) to engage your nonprofit in particulars ways. Or all of the above! (or A+B+(C or D))

    And once you take action with your list of constituents you want to see what the outcome is. Did you get the desired result? What can you learn about what you should repeat? About what you should modify the next time? And how will you know this? Reports! Yes, they are cool and they are a mirror to your organization and a window into your constituents.

    I believe it was Shelley who said of reports… oh, misplaced the quote. Anyways, he liked them to. I’ll find it somewhere and re-post…

  7. Sarah Gray

    Poor reporting can slow user adoption and kill a new CRM effort. Great tips to keep it from happening to you!

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