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Online Database Management

What & Why?
Donor data management… the bane of nonprofit existence for many of us. How on earth are we supposed 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? This is the tedious work that is essential to 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 (the mission) and general frustration among staff members. In our high-speed, customer satisfaction-oriented business climate, all nonprofits must look towards data management as an essential aspect of their work and future.

Even in the smallest of development departments — often only a half-person large — it is important to develop 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, easily accessible to all relevant staff and entry standards set at an early stage of database development. Online databases are ideal for this purpose, and can often 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 globe. Allowing all the players who contribute to your fundraising efforts to use one central tracking system builds a cohesive team that is 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.

An Ounce of Prevention…
I won’t spend too much time talking about how to find a good online development database, since there are resources available through Charity Channel and other reviews that can assist you with that. However, I will highlight which features you should keep in mind as you research and shop. Since my suggestion is to go with an online database, specific concerns related to online security and access will be your main criteria for your choice of product:

  • Security: Make sure the product you use is hosted on a secured site and that the data is backed up on a regular basis.
  • Proprietary Information: Before going with any product, confirm that the data entered will be the sole ownership of your organization, even if “kept” at a remote site. As the international privacy laws mature, this last aspect will grow to be of more importance.
  • User-Friendly: Of course, you’ll want to make sure the interface of the database product that 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 co-users. This will save you time and frustration when concerns arise.
  • Easy to Customize: Also, it is essential that the database allow for customization that does not cost and arm and a leg. Being able to manipulate your database to provide the data that you need, when you need it, really makes or breaks the database. Finally, a note about designing a customized database – generally this can be too costly, in the end, if programmers you have hired move on to other jobs and can’t maintain their work, so I don’t suggest going with that option. Getting someone to customize a standardized database is a better option, but those people can be difficult to find.
  • The Price is Right?: Some companies offer scalable fee rates that grow as your contact base and organization grow.

Training for You and Yours
The research, (internal) 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 not everyone who needs to have this base of knowledge and understanding about the database can attend training sessions that are offered by the company or representatives, then set up a time to have a designated trainee share what she or he has learned. Training your volunteers well 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 first enter only specific kinds of contacts. For example, ask your board chair to enter information pertaining to major donor cultivation only. Set this person’s access settings accordingly, as most databases allow for varying levels of access (i.e., does Joan have the power to delete donor records?). After a few months of limited data entry and access, you may 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 want to have a board chair then also track information about advisory board or board member recruitment. All of these aspects of training and user management will vary depending upon who you have working with you on the development team.

If you can put in the hard work up front, 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 development databases, I know this process can be daunting and tedious. It will pay off in the end!

About the Contributor: Amie Michaelek

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