3 Things a Non-Techie Exec. needs to know about Databases

There are 3 things you need to know about Database Analysis. We share here.

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.


If you are seeking a database for your nonprofit, don't search without reading this!


How to Sell Your Database Software Ideas Internally

Selling Change is tough. In NPO's it's important to know how to sell Donor Management Software.

The Art of Selling Software Change

You may have likely heard it many times in your career, “Oh, I would love to have XYZ Software, but I can’t get the “board” on “onboard” to spend the money on software. They won’t change”. So, how do you successfully push the idea for obtaining new database software in your organization? In this article, I provide several key ways to address that question.

I believe the comedic movie, Tommy Boy, depicts in a lighthearted way a parallel to the challenges of selling new technology internally into an organization these days. I always get a chuckle out of this one. I hope you do too.

Now in terms of software projects, there are some instances (maybe more than we will admit) when the board and executive team may come from a different perspective than the staff. For many organizations, they are not intimately involved in the “Whirlwind” of a staff’s day to day activities. And, for small nonprofits, perhaps the board needs some education on the reasons why technology may be warranted in order to help push forward the mission.

For those reasons, the “Art of Selling” may need to come into play. And, if that is the case for you, you may require certain tactics and skills to make an effective “pitch” to push forward new innovation in your organization.

Why Selling is Important,Tommy Boy!

First, I believe in the idea that We are all in sales. In other words, probably more so than ever, I believe that every employee should view themselves in the role of selling a product. And, that often times, they are “the product” too. In other words, every time you talk to a member, donor, or customer, you should be providing service, promoting your cause, and pushing forward the unique benefits & value of participating with your organization. And, whether you are working in a nonprofit organization or a for profit, it doesn’t matter.

But, even working internally it’s important to be comfortable in this idea as well. I realize that for some “Sales” is a dirty word. I know, it is even often confused by a few reading now with one of the oldest professions in the world (you figure out that one). But, when sales is done right, it’s a very honorable profession. And, in order to fight the good fight and embark on a mission to overcome the “Status Quo” of yesteryear, change likely will come with resistance. And, knowing some good practices of selling will only advance your cause forward with software projects and other initiatives.

Granted, I must confess. I do not purport to be a sales expert. However, in my humble opinion, the best sales professionals take an altruistic view towards helping their client succeed in removing obstacles and solving problems. A successful sales professional “doesn’t tell” rather they listen, they offer insight not lies, they solve problems and provide a viable plan via their product and/or services. They care and sincerely desire to help their clients.

And, that’s how you need to be! When embarking on a journey to foster change in your organization, I do believe you need to invoke some of the expertise of the truly great sales people (like Ben Feldman or Zig Ziglar) in order to be successful. Below, I provide several ideas which you may consider to help you close your internal IT deal.

Teach, Tailor, and Take Control of the Software Database Project

A while back, I read a best selling book titled, The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. In the book, the author makes the claim that some of the most successful sales professionals are “Challengers”. According to the author, a “Challenger” is defined by the ability to do three things: teach, tailor, and take control.

In some instances, it may be imperative to confront the conventional way of thinking in order to push technology decisions forward. Yes, in order to achieve success in selling software change internally and test the prevailing way of thinking, you have to command reliable information. To be effective, you have to learn how to “teach” to your audience in an appropriate manner. And, it’s imperative to provide factual illustrations in which the proposed alternative will address your organization’s problems.

However, if you push, you need to be prepared to teach and tailor an outline which has impactful metrics to support your situation. You need to be prepared to answer some of these type of questions:

  • How the software will cut costs
  • Improve donor or membership levels
  • Increase participation at your big conference
  • Increase non-dues revenue
  • Improve engagement
  • Enhance donor retention
  • Improve member services

Without factual information, your mission will be futile and you may run the risk of killing the sale. You will need to take the time to “assess” before you “teach”.

Being a challenger isn’t the only thing you may need to consider in this pursuit. You need to inject several other ingredients to ensure success in sparking the revolution of change at your organization.

Build Consensus For New Database Software:

In addition to taking on the role of challenger, it is very important to build consensus. As you already know, when asking your board to spend money, consensus is more important than ever to get your ideas across. It’s no surprise that an internal project usually gets pushed through by a person who can effectively tailor the message to a wide range of stakeholders in order to build that consensus.

Don’t make the mistake of setting unrealistic expectations for the new software. It’s not all about your department but rather stress the impact of how this impacts the entire nonprofit enterprise. In reality, your IT requirement is likely a need which impacts everyone. Build consensus among everyone to highlight the failure points. And, use the agreed consensus often in the process to sell your software idea forward. It’s important to find a path to mutual understanding that launches an IT software project in the best way and avoids regrets, revisions, and stalling.

Justify with Accentuating the Bleeding of Your Database:

Do a thorough analysis internally in each department to determine the costs of doing it the old way. And, then use those insights to show a comparison to the costs afterwards. For example, the mere process of having Data Silos (Excel, Access, Website, Accounting, Event Registration Systems, Social Media Systems, Email Marketing etc.) can easily justify the initial expense for most systems today. Data Integrity (redundant data), Improved Marketing (better segmentation), Increased Support (systems which are disparate cause more support work), & training is easier (if in separate systems more likelihood of more errors and bad data) with an integrated solution.

Expectations are Reality in Database Situations:

If your organization is still living in the 90’s with just a website, you are not relevant. Your members and donors have come accustom to the online world of doing business. By not having your website connected with your nonprofit database management system, your going to kill your productivity capabilities. But, please be sure to frame your request for the new technology in realistic terms. People, partners, processes, and products play a role in success. Products are important but don’t frame the product to your executive leadership as the only challenge. Be realistic.

Database Programs Are Imperative to Advance the Mission:

The more you know, the more engaged you members and donors will be. For example, without an integrated community, your leaving the possibilities of increased participation in the public domain. In other words, make the case that most systems today will offer ways your organization needs to be competitive. Enterprise systems should enhance the cause for increased engagement and participation. And, having a new system will allow your organization to “retain” the mind share of your donors/members if you offer a solution. A new system may be what you need to advance your mission.

Live Inside the Box of Software Projects:

As Phil Dunphy, actor on ABC’s sitcom Modern Family, stated so eloquently,“Everyone is competing to be outside the box now. Yep, it’s crowded outside now”. “It’s time to take over the inside again”. Seriously, executives looking to push new technology ideas to the board need to get “inside the box” and figure out what your departments need. This solution will impact staff, executives, board, and customers (members/donors).As a result, it is critical to decipher the points of pain for everyone in the organization. Then, think outside the box to come up with a solution.

In many organizations, your team may need to investigate seeking good counsel to assist in this effort. It may be prudent to enlist the help of an outside firm to discuss how to best frame your project requirements and assess the impact before moving forward with an internal enterprise software project. In fact, that may just be, the first sale you make to your team!

Until next time, keep SmartThoughts in mind.

501c3 Software