Are you contemplating a better way to manage your constituents in the new year? If so, there are three things that a nontechnical nonprofit leader should know about “The Database” before embarking on “The Search“. In this article, we cover three key items to ponder before attempting to obtain a database for your donor, member, or customer relationship needs.
Three Nonprofit Database Basics
1. The Minimum Expectation of a Database
The minimum expectation of a database is to store information properly. In its literal translation, there are many devices and items which could, for some, be construed as a database. For example, a telephone book is essentially a printed database. It can’t do much except be there for a manual alphabetical look-up resource but many could (and have) argued their “Rolodex” is as good as any in helping them.
However, moving into the 21st century, with nonprofit database software you should expect more than just storing data. Your database should gather, store, and group that data into their own related tables. Those tables, in turn, should be connected through common fields — a member or donor ID number, for example. By connecting those tables in a relational database with lookup fields, a good system can be used to segment your donors/members/customers information, find records more efficiently, reduce data redundancy, automate tasks, and a whole host of other capabilities today.
2. What are the limitations of a Database?
To be direct, there are clear limitations of what some databases were intended to do. Trying to have Excel, Microsoft Access, or FileMaker (common off the shelf database programs) to do more advanced functionality is a stretch for most. For example, Access/FileMaker are clearly database software programs, but they are not database software designed specifically to manage associations or nonprofit organizations. Access/FileMaker are not designed, out-of-the-box, to manage nonprofits and all of the processes they generally have to address. Things like customer management, donations, membership dues, events registrations, accreditation and certification, exhibit sales, sponsorships, committee management and reports are frequently found as baseline functionality within off-the-shelf nonprofit software packages. While these could be built into Access/FileMaker, you are not going to find them out-of-the-box when you purchase Access/FileMaker. And, database programming can be difficult, time-consuming and complex so not a likely option for most nontechnical laypersons in nonprofits today.
To be certain, there are many comprehensive solutions on the market which were written for the nonprofit industry. That noted, it’s important to start out by determining your specific needs today and think long-term to determine what you may need in the future before venturing out to find that “perfect software” option. And, don’t be so hard on yourself if you get started and then you find you need more. This reminds me of a famous army saying, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. In other words, when your plan meets the real world, the real world wins. Nothing goes as planned or imagined in most cases.
3. Beware the implications of “Data Rot“?
Now, let’s move back to our good old phone book. It’s not surprising that the telephone book is somewhat obsolete even before it hits our doorstep. People change addresses; women acquire new last names when they marry, etc. Likewise, databases — especially those with a large number of records — need data collection processes and timely updating for obvious reasons.
You would not want to begin an ambitious fund drive with a donors list that has not been updated for a year. Each inaccurate piece of information in your database is a missed opportunity to solicit the financial support you need to run your organization. The phenomenon of “data rot,” then, has to be factored into any database analysis, where accuracy is essential. Also, “data rot” can quickly deteriorate into data loss without reliable — and preferably offsite — data backup.
Finally, remember that database success is not a perfect science. But, you should implore some measures and processes to ensure good results. For example, I believe that donor and member self-service website access is a “must have” in most donor or member database systems today. In addition, you need to be sure that your database has “duplicate checking” or “cleansing” features. And, as you grow, you may need to consult with a database resource such as Updentity or Wes Trochlil at Effective Database Management to help maintain your databases integrity.
If you are embarking on a search for a database for the first time at your nonprofit, we would enjoy helping you find a database tool best suited for your specific needs. And, be sure to start out with our list of software options to help in your process. Until then, keep SmartThoughts in mind.