Meredith Hancks, EdD
Prospect Research Software: Your Database
There is a lot of discussion about databases and which are the best for various types of situations or organizations. There are benefits and challenges to whatever you choose, so the best course of action is to review your options and determine which one best addresses the needs of your organization. A smoothly functioning and secure database is the key foundational element of a good organization. It can make or break your success, either by making you a lean, mean, well-organized fundraising machine or by throwing your efforts into total chaos with redundant, confusing, incomplete, or inaccessible prospect information.
Evaluating Your Database
There are a few vital things to consider concerning your database:
- What do you need to put in the database and store?
- What do you need to be able to retrieve from the database?
- How proficient are your users at locating information?
- How much ability do you want to customize how data is stored or accessed?
- How much available support do you want, need, and/or have?
To answer these questions, we first must turn our discussion to this single, fundamental one: internal or external? Your organization can choose to purchase a packaged fundraising database, or it is possible to build your own. Let’s first take a look at external or packaged databases.
External or Packaged Databases
There are many packaged database options available for purchase, at all price points and time-commitment levels, whether you are a two-person or a two-hundred-person organization. And these packaged databases come with all kinds of built-in features and tools. Companies that sell such databases include:
- Blackbaud Raiser’s Edge
- Sungard Banner
- Datatel Benefactor
- ROI Solutions
- open-source versions—there are many, such as ebase, VisibleResults, InfoCentral, CiviCRM, Metrix. Search for open-source tools at http://www.techsoup.org.
A limitation of a packaged database is that it is difficult to customize the features and tools yourself. Usually, you must request customization from the company that you purchased from, and that usually means extra costs. And packaged databases can be quite expensive to purchase in the first place.The advantage of packaged databases is that tools, features, bells, and whistles are ready and waiting for you to use. Just drop your prospect data into it, and it is ready to go. You can pull gift reports, mailing lists, etc., on day one. With the advent of cloud computing, it is possible for you to purchase a cloud database, where all of your prospect information is stored “in the cloud” or on the server of the company providing the service. In general, “in the cloud” means stored on a computer operated by another party and accessed across the Internet. Cloud storage can present significant cost savings, since your organization does not have to purchase the internal memory or server capacity to store a large amount of data on a large database. It can also present a data security risk, since you are accessing your data via the Internet. Cloud companies should be well aware of such risks, and should be prepared for them, but you need to make sure to completely investigate this aspect of your purchase before making it final.
Internal or Homegrown Databases
The benefit of building your database internally is that you can customize it to your heart’s delight! You can build all your own tools and reports suited very specifically to your prospect pool, your giving cycle, your institutional background, etc. You can build it on a framework like Access or Sybase at minimal, or definitely lower, cost to your organization (compared with the often significant price tags on packaged databases). The down side of this approach is that you are building the database. First of all, you definitely need to have a staff member (or an entire staff) who is capable of and willing to build a relational database, which is a complicated endeavor. But if you have one or more people who are willing and able, then it can be a wise and cost-effective move for your organization. Secondly, when building your database, you or your staff will have to figure out all of the aspects and features of the database, the things that are already built into a packaged product. You and your IT staff will have to figure out how to structure the gift reporting, the contact entry, the prospect management system, etc., etc. You may find this quite daunting, or you may be intrigued and excited by the idea of building your own system. Your organization’s database is a choice you should consider very thoughtfully, and we advise you to involve your entire fundraising staff or whole organization in the process of purchasing a packaged product, or changing to a different one, or building your own. You must consider the needs and requirements of everyone on your staff who will use the database as their primary work tool. And don’t forget the confidentiality, privacy, and security concerns.
- Consider all of your database needs and desires before choosing a format.
- Assess whether your team has more time or more money available.
- Make a database choice that makes sense to you.
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