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Documentation: Why It’s Important and What You Should Start Documenting Now

How often have you been frustrated because there’s always laundry to do? Well, documentation is a lot like laundry. And if you have been around DRG in 2023, then you know that documentation is something we talk about often. However, if this is your first time hanging with us, let’s start at the beginning.

What is documentation? The Oxford Dictionary gives us two definitions: 1. material that provides official information or evidence or that serves as a record; 2. the process of classifying and annotating texts, photographs, etc. Both definitions happen to work in our field of Donor Relations. Documentation includes writing out our policies and/or procedures, the steps we take to accomplish our tasks, as well as lessons learned during projects.

Why is documentation important? Communication. Documentation allows us to share with our coworkers, other departments, or organizations how we do our work, why we do our work, and what we must do to accomplish our work. Communication can always be improved, and documentation helps us do just that with our partners. Documentation is important to our teams because it tells us what we’re doing. Do I know how to start this reporting project that I do every year? What happens if I’m not available for the project this year? Would a team member know how to do it? Documentation ensures that the other team members know how to do all the work we do. Documentation puts everyone on the same page; everyone has the same resources. Also, documentation captures our wins and our lessons. It lets us know what we have accomplished, and where and how we can improve.

What should you start documenting? The short answer is everything! Documentation is a long game, so start with things you have direct control over. This will help get the writing juices flowing.

For individual contributors: My favorite suggestion is to start with what I like to call your job manual. This document is one of the most critical items, as it is beneficial to everyone, and anyone in the office can help with its creation. The job manual lists duties but also how those duties are accomplished. I created a job manual for my previous employer. My primary responsibilities were large-scale financial and impact reports. My completed financial report guide was 75 pages of step-by-step details—including how I produced the financial statements, and screenshots for my visual friends (the main reason the guide was 75 pages). This guide ended up being essential to the person who followed me in that position. The new hire followed my guide for year one, got their feet wet, and then, was able to make their own mark on reporting. Your guides don’t all need to be that detailed. Let’s be honest, I may go a little overboard in my documentation at times. However, your job guide does need to fit you. Remember, the key to good documentation is that it will change as your role (or organization) grows and adapts. So, don’t worry about it being perfect or complete. Just start writing.

For team leaders: Outside of job manuals, you will want to start documenting the policies and procedures for your team as well. These documents are vital to ensure everyone on the team has the same resources and knowledge to do their jobs. You might ask yourself, “Why? Our organization already has policies and procedures?” But your team also has policies and procedures for how they work and function as a team. For instance, what is the policy for your event planner to find new vendors? Do they need to do something with you before they can begin the RFP or vendor process? What if your team wants to change the gift agreement policy; can they do that on their own, or do they need to follow certain steps with you before taking it to the organization? Our team policies and procedures must work with our organization’s to keep everyone on the same playbook.

Don’t get caught up in having the “perfect” process or report to document before you write. Just start and don’t stop! Documentation is a continuous process. Just as our roles change, so will our documentation—which is why it will never be perfect or complete. It will, however, be what you need when you need it.

P.S. The number one thing all shops can (and should) add to our documentation is a “Lessons Learned” log. These logs are big in project management but also vital to our work. Lessons Learned logs are a place to capture all of our debrief notes and highlight areas of growth for the next time we work on a similar project. I promise this will be a difference-maker in your team’s development.


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