Building an Online Database
Donor-data management is the bane of nonprofit existence for many of us. How on earth are we supposed to keep up with endless amounts of data clean-up -- much less data entry -- on top of our busy, multi-faceted positions that keep us moving in five different directions at once?
But this tedious work is essential in tracking the many relationships we juggle as development professionals. Good database management can bolster the effectiveness of our program, development and outreach teams, while bad database management can result in slower attainment of organizational goals and general frustration among staff members. In our high-speed, donor-satisfaction-oriented business climate, all nonprofits must view data management as an essential aspect of their work and future.
Even in the smallest of development departments, it’s important to build an appropriate system that will allow the development arm of the organization to grow and be manipulated by many people. This means that a database must be user friendly and easily accessible to all relevant staff.
Online databases are ideal for this purpose and often can be very affordable for start-ups and social entrepreneurs. Important information about personal contacts, material distributed and interactions with people that are important to fundraising and strategic development of your organization can be input to a central source by staff and board members around the world.
Allowing all the players who contribute to your fundraising efforts to use one central tracking system builds a cohesive team that will be more effective in taking advantage of the links that are developed by each team member. Furthermore, it can provide continuity when development team members change over time.
Since my suggestion is to go with an online database, specific concerns related to online security and access will be your main criteria for choosing a product:
Make sure the product you use is hosted on a secure site, with data backed up on regular basis.
2. PROPRIETARY INFORMATION
Before going with any product, confirm that the data entered will be the sole ownership of your organization, even if stored at a remote site. As international privacy laws mature, this will have more importance.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure that the interface of the database product you choose is easy enough for the non-computer savvy to manipulate. If it’s not easy to use, then it’s doubtful your busy staff and board members will take the time to use it. Ask for input early and often from your users. This will save you time and frustration when concerns arise.
It’s essential that a database allows for customization that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Being able to manipulate your database to provide the data you need, when you need it, really makes or breaks the database. A note about designing a customized database: Generally this can be too costly and, in the end, if programmers you’ve hired move on to other jobs, they won’t be able to maintain your work. I don’t suggest going with this option. Getting someone to customize a standardized database is a better option, but those people can be difficult to find.
Some companies offer scalable fee rates that grow as your contact base and organization grow.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING
The research, approval, creation and testing of a database can take many months -- and likely up to a year with larger organizations. This set-up process must correlate to staff training that allows those relevant users to trust, understand, be committed to and use the product you create.
If those who must have knowledge and understanding about the database cannot attend training sessions that are offered by vendor representatives, then set up a time to have a designated trainee share what he or she has learned. Training your volunteers from the start can save you time and hassle when you get ready to do a mailing or put on a fundraising event.
MANAGING DATA-ENTRY POINTS
Start small. Have non-primary users enter specific kinds of contacts first. For example, ask your board chair to only enter information pertaining to major-donor cultivation. Set this person’s access settings accordingly, as most databases allow for varying levels of access (e.g., Does Joan have the power to delete donor records?).
After a few months of limited data entry and access, you could find that this is all the responsibility that a volunteer board member can take on. Or, you may find that they have taken to the process -- maybe because they get great information out of it, too. In that case you can extend -- either through verbal agreement or accessibility preferences -- the kinds of contacts that such a person tracks in the database.
Maybe you could have a board chair who tracks information about member recruitment, for example. All of these aspects of training and user management will vary greatly depending on who you have working with you on the development team.
If you can put in the hard work upfront, the database will serve you longer, be more useful and will really multiply the number of successful approaches your development team has. Use the database to track relationships, how they start, develop and bear fruit. Having gone through the stages of developing several databases, I know this process can be daunting and tedious. It will pay off in the end.
Amie Latterman is outreach director for Child Family Health International, an organization that builds and strengthens sustainable healthcare services in undeserved communities worldwide. She can reached via e-mail at e-mail email@example.com.