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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.

Note from the Editors

Prospect Research is a VerbThis article is excerpted from Prospect Research Is a Verb: Fundraising Is the Subject, a down-to-earth, easy-to-read manual by Meredith Hancks and Cara Rosson.

We recommend that you review chapters in Part One of the manual before you start the process to make sure you are considering all facets of the decision.

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:

Practical Tip

It can be very helpful to talk to people at organizations similar to yours and investigate what database they are using. Some packaged databases are built for specific types of organizations (e.g., Tessitura is built for arts and cultural organizations, with built-in ticketing functions). New products become available all the time, so this is one great way to research the possibilities.
  • Blackbaud Raiser’s Edge
  • Sungard Banner
  • Datatel Benefactor
  • Tessitura
  • Donor2
  • DonorPerfect
  • eTapestry
  • GiftWorks
  • MatchMaker
  • PhilanthrAppeal
  • ResultsPlus
  • ROI Solutions
  • Sage
  • Telosa
  • open-source versions—there are many, such as ebase, VisibleResults, InfoCentral, CiviCRM, Metrix. Search for open-source tools at

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.

Practical Tip

A packaged database can be a really huge time-saver at reporting time.
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.

To Recap

  • 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.
Meredith Hancks

About the Contributor: Meredith Hancks

Meredith Hancks, EdD is the director of Prospect Research and Management for Western Illinois University in Macomb, where she’s been employed since 2007. Prior to her research career, she worked in annual giving at private liberal arts colleges in Minneapolis and Chicago. The part of this profession she enjoys most is the search for information and the subsequent ability to help frontline fundraisers be more successful in their work.
As a member of CharityChannel, she has contributed several book reviews as a We Review panelist, authored the following books for the In The Trenches series:
Have you recently joined a new organization or found yourself with a new set of duties that include prospect research? Do you believe in the power of data to make informed decisions to help your organization raise more money? Do you want to participate as a valuable member of the fundraising team? In Getting Started in Prospect Research: What You Need to Know to Find Who You Need to Find, Meredith shows you how to:

Set up your own research shop.
Conduct capacity and interest research.
Uncover hidden gems in your database.
Identify great new prospects.
Create a list of your favorite sources for various types of data.
Build relationships with fundraisers.
Determine when to go it alone and when to bring in the experts.

Fundraising Research Made Easy: A Practical Guide for Fundraisers for those who do frontline fundraising but do not have dedicated researchers or other support staff to find information they need about prospective donors. Most often, the entire development staff is composed of just a handful of people or sometimes even one person who wears all the hats. Meredith, who coauthored this book with Cara Rosson, helps you find a way to make research a routine part of your fundraising process. You will experience greater success in your fundraising when you learn more about your prospects and how to be strategic in building relationships with them.
Prospect Research is a Verb: Fundraising is the Subject is a prospect research manual that’s down-to-earth, easy-to-follow, and even fun to read. Meredith and coauthor Cara Rosson divide the manual into four Parts, each dealing with a specific aspect of project research. They make innovative use of the old-fashioned gift pyramid to provide a surprisingly helpful visual aid for examining the levels of research required for different types of prospects. Throughout, the authors offer helpful and interesting sidebars, and take the time to give you specifics.
She has a fourth book coming soon, also to be published by CharityChannel Press: Diving Into Research: Populating Your Prospect Pool.
Meredith currently serves as chair of the Best Practices in Prospect Development Subcommittee for the Association of Advancement Services Professionals. This team of professionals is committed to identifying and articulating best practices in all areas of prospect research and prospect management, using many of the principles included in this book. Meredith recently completed her term as Vice President of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA)-Illinois Chapter.
Outside of work, Meredith just completed her EdD in higher education administration at the University of Minnesota. She and her husband have twin sons who keep them endlessly entertained and provide a wellspring of joy. They are expecting their third child this spring. Her favorite quote comes from Henry David Thoreau:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. —Henry David Thoreau

Thus far, Meredith has experienced that to be true.

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