10 Tips on Determining Your Database Needs

What database software do I need? How much should I pay for it?

These are just two database-related questions we here at RMA get asked repeatedly by non-profits.

If you’re a small organization with only a few hundred donors it’s okay to record their names and addresses on a simple Excel spreadsheet. But once you get serious about raising dollars from individuals you must systematize your activities and become more strategic in cultivating, managing, recording and tracking donors.

This week, let’s look at some of the key questions and strategies surrounding donor databases.

  1. Determine your needs. Interview your staff to determine what functions they most need from a database system. Do you want your database program to be able to mail direct mail appeals? How do you want to cross-reference the data and information? Do you need your donor database to “talk” to your membership database?
  2. Determine your budget. How much can you spend on your database needs? Databases range from $500 to $50,000. Make sure you don’t buy more than you need. Most organizations that buy “top of the line database” end up using only 3 percent of the capability of the product.
  3. Do your homework. Read up about donor databases in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and talk to colleagues about what systems they use and what they like and dislike about them.
  4. Do you need a custom system? Perhaps your database needs are outside of what an “off the shelf” system offers. If you decide to go this route, make sure the programmer is reputable and can provide support well beyond the launch date of the database.
  5. Explore the systems on the web. Most database companies have a demo that you can download from their websites.
  6. Contact a sales person at a database company to discuss your needs. Ask about costs including training and support costs. Who will help train your users if you purchase their system? Do they offer in person assistance, phone or web based support? Ask for a list of LOCAL referrals and contact existing users.
  7. Contact referrals and ask them if you can set up a time to take a look at the database. Ask the referral to provide examples of reports, and also ask them to give you an idea of how easy/difficult it is to work with the company’s support team.
  8. Ask the database company specifically about conversion of your data. Will they convert your data and for what cost? How long will the conversion take?
  9. Create rules for entry. Make sure staff is trained on how and what to enter in the database. Determine what fields are used for what data and stick to those rules. Remember “garbage in, garbage out.” If you don’t stick with the rules your data will be difficult to extract and may become useless.
  10. Continue training staff members to use the database. Don’t train one person to use the database because if that person leaves you’ll have a serious void to fill. Cross train staff members on the database so if one member is out, others can fill in.

One of our senior associates here at RMA has done extensive research on donor database systems. If you’d like to receive a copy of this research, please e-mail info@richardmale.com.

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