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The Dewey Way of Coding – Coding that Makes Sense

By Tom Watson on January 20, 2006No Comment
compassThe Dewey Way of Coding – Coding that Makes Sense

One of the things I like most about libraries is that no matter where you go to visit one, you can count on biographies about people in history being catalogued in the 920s and that books on baseball will be located in the 796 section of call numbers.  Libraries’ worldwide use of the Dewey Decimal Classification reflects a systematic and consistent method of categorization. The floor plan or design of the library is usually different, but never the coding.

How many times have you found yourself introduced to a new database and found out that the system was set up two, three or maybe four predecessors ago?  Or that no one currently working with the organization was there when the database was established and everyone just kept working with what was in place when they got there because “that is how it has always been entered”? You then find yourself mulling your way through a seemingly endless list of codes, abbreviations, descriptions and fund names; most of which have not had any activity for quite some time and some with names that no one can explain.

There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to coding in any database system; keep it simple so it’s easy to manage and maintain, and work from the succession theory – will your successor be able to understand how the database was set up and perhaps more importantly, is anybody able to use the system — input data and run reports?

When I have the opportunity to set-up a new database system or I am modifying an existing system, I always recall my trips to the different libraries I have visited and where I usually find what I want. When in front of a database, I almost always head straight to the fund codes.

Fund codes are oftentimes the table which is coded in excess and without pattern.  It is vital that the table of fund codes follow a logical and consistent order.  The codes should be kept simple to facilitate use as well as recall the meaning of each code.  It should also allow the development department to reconcile with the financial office (hopefully on a frequent basis and not just as part of the annual audit).

To begin, let’s assume we are working with an academic institution and the database system allows five characters for coding its funds. Let us further assume that the database has been set up with four campaigns: Annual Giving, Capital Campaign, Endowment and Other.  Each of these campaigns would be a series beginning with a different number:  1 for Annual Giving, 2 for Capital Campaign, 3 for Endowment and 4 for Other.  It is possible to go as high as 9 if the organization has that many campaigns.  It might not be wise to use 0, since sometimes numbers that start with 0 might not appear as such in some spreadsheet formats.  (As a general rule of thumb, I do not advocate the use of dates within the codes or names of funds.  I prefer to use date parameters in my searches and reports.)

In addition, the ideal is to have the fund system of the development database coincide, if not mirror, the codes from the income accounts of the financial office’s general ledger. To this end, whatever coding is used, try to make sure it is noted where every fund appears in the financial records.  (Remember, the financial books are king. Development records will often compliment what the Accounting Department has but will not always keep track of the money in the same way as the development office.  Think about the recording of stock.  Development operations often record the full gift amount, the financial office the amount received after transaction costs.)

Under the campaign called Annual Giving, (money that is expected to be raised annually and will be used within that same fiscal year) a code for an Unrestricted Fund or General Operating Support Fund (GOS), and another for Restricted Funds, would be assigned a 1 and a 6 respectively. The unrestricted fund typically is the largest account in the Annual Giving, as it captures all money that comes in annually and can be used by the institution as it best sees necessary.

Using this type of approach all Annual Giving Unrestricted codes would begin with 11 and all Annual Giving Restricted codes would begin with 16.  A development officer looking at a donor’s giving history would be able to know almost immediately if this donor is an unrestricted giver or someone who likes to designate her support for specific purposes.

While there are many ways to set up the coding, let’s continue looking at this way of setting up codes for money received annually that is designated to be used by certain areas of the institution, but not limited to how the money can be used, so long as it is used in that area.  For example,  you might want to group the annual funds by a common denominator such as grouping Academics, Athletics, Faculty Development, Co-Curricular and Extra Curricular. Some organizations use Funds to identify vehicles of activity for receiving gifts, such as Direct Mail, Golf Outings, Special Events, etc.  I encourage the use of appeals and solicitation codes for this type of gift tagging; however the same logic of grouping by common denominator can be used. 

Once the fund groups have been established, then you can add the academic departments, the sport programs, the co-curricular clubs and activities, etc. and assign numbers that are in order but leave room for future additions. For example if you add Academic to the previously cited code number you might have 1 for the Annual Giving campaign, 6 for the Annual Giving Restricted and now a 1 for Academic.  Then you might follow with numbers for the alphabetical listing of Departments. If we have only 5 character spaces available, this leaves 99 numbers that can be used so you might skip every 5 or so to give you the room for growth in the future.  In this manner, under Academics, the art department might receive a 1 and history 3 and science perhaps a 7. This would allow the art department to have ten numbers (0-9) available for the different areas of the Art program that might receive support.  If you need more than ten for a department, you could use letters of the alphabet to increase the amount of characters that can be used. 

Using this approach, Fund Code #16172 would represent 1 as Annual Giving, 6 as Annual Giving Restricted, 1 as Academic, 7 as Science and 2 as Biology. All codes with a 6 in the thousandths places are Annual Giving Restricted, all codes with a 1 in the 100’s places are academic related and all codes with a 7 in the 10’s place would be Science and all codes with a digit in the one’s place would be departments in the Science area.

Just remember, whatever system you choose to use, consistency is the key.  By implementing a consistent numerical system for your fund codes, you can easily generate reports that summarize the total amount received for overall categories and make the often onerous task of reconciling your financial records with the Finance Department a great deal easier.

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