“What Database?” you ask? Why, the database that fuels your organization's growth potential. The palace in which you house your beloved donors. The mainframe that tracks the data of every donation. The harbor that connects every potential donor with the staff member and the funding opportunity that is right for them.

Sounds magical, right?

Unfortunately it’s not magic and I’m no wizard. But your humble writer has seen a few databases in my day and I’m here to outline some of the most important questions you need to stop putting off and start asking about your Database. Databases aren’t scary but many treat them like something out of a Hitchcock film. Remember your database is there to help you.

1. How easy is it to enter data?

Entering data is one of the dullest tasks known to man. Yet if the data never gets into your system the entire cycle of donor cultivation or moves management that should take place will never happen. Your database needs to be easy enough to use so that those that are tasked with the job can do it in an efficient and effective way. Here’s some follow up questions to ask those who are tasked with this job:

  1. Can you batch upload/update records from a spreadsheet?
  2. Are you having to repeat tasks you feel should be automated?
  3. Are you able to train a new person in this task?

A good database should have ways to automate or minimize the leg work on most tasks. Some things will always take time, but cutting out the excess where you can is key to saving time and money.

2. How easily can I access my data?

All data is only as good as your ability to see it. So how easy is it to find your data? Let’s put it in real world terms: Let’s say “Bill” gives you a call and says he likes your work. He wonders if you’re having any events in his area. He also would like to be put on any mailing list you might have. Lastly, he’s wondering if you ever received the donation he gave two months back.

That’s all great! But do you know how you’d go about finding all that information? If your first instinct is to ask someone else, that’s a problem. At this basic level, any development officer should be able to track down Bill’s record with his contact information, what events might be in his area, mailings you’ve sent, and donations he’s made, all in one place. If you’re having to go to different databases or heavens forbid spreadsheets, you need to have a better system. 

3. Who takes ownership of the database?

Nonprofits usually fall into 3 categories:

  1. Nobody knows how to use the database. Nobody takes ownership. It just sits there gathering dust while you hope information and utility spontaneously combusts from within.
  2. One unlucky person is saddled with the Sisyphean task of managing the database and is the sole staff member capable of finding anything within it.
  3. Most staff have at least a basic knowledge of how to use, access, and manipulate the Database.

If you find yourself in either box one or two, you need to consider the risk to your organization. Inability to quickly access data and see results is like sand in the gears of your development machine. At least one person should take ownership, but your organization cannot be so reliant on their mystical database abilities, so that if they leave or get sick you lose access to all your development information. Take the time to build some redundancy and get people trained on your system. That doesn’t sound fun, but neither is broccoli. You see where I’m going with this.

4. Am I trying to substitute spread sheets for a proper database?

Spreadsheets can and will become nothing but a morass. They are not a data storehouse. They can act like a place to store your organization's donor data, but they do a bad job of it. Spreadsheets have uses but they are a poor substitute for a cloud based database, and they eventually become a crutch that people are unwilling to give up despite the fact they are hard to search, graphically repulsive, and near impossible to pull reports on. Sooner or later you have to give them up.

5. Do I need to be able to run a report?

Reports and Queries look scary at first. But they are one of the most powerful tools to dig into your database. What’s more, reports should not be difficult or time consuming. If you came to me and said: “I want to find all of my household donors who have given $1000 or above in the last 14 months who live in Arkanas or Oregon.” I should be able to do that in mere minutes. Reports are an amazingly powerful tool for development officers and executives alike. You should be able to pull a contact report of your top donors in whatever city your president might be traveling to, for example, and of the most recent donations you need to personally thank your donors for. Evaluate your organization’s solution and your staff’s knowledge. Is any of this possible?

6. How do I know if we need a better database solution or more training on our current database?

Do a test in your database using the 25 minute rule. If in under 25 minutes you can pull a report like the one below, you’re in good shape. Reports can generally be broken into two parts: what you filter for and what you display. So here it goes:

Build a report with filters that show:

  • All of your donors
    • Who are individuals/households (Not corporations or foundations)
    • Who are in 3 different states of your choice (Or 3 different local cities for smaller organizations)
    • Who donated $100 or more in the last 6 months (Or $1000 for larger organizations)
    • For whom you have either an email or a phone number to contact them

Now what to display:

  • Prefix
  • First Name
  • Last Name
  • Suffix
  • Title
  • Company Name
  • Street Address
  • City
  • State
  • Zip
  • Email
  • Phone
  • Most recent donation
  • Total giving last year

You just built a contact list of what donors you should get in touch with on your next trip to these states (or cities). This is actually a fairly basic report but incredibly useful, and it only gets more in depth and fun as you dig deeper!

That being said, if you were able to build this in under 25 minutes, your database is probably working well for you! If someone else was needed to do this or it took closer to an hour, you’ll want to reconsider your options. If it took over an hour to get this report created, it's a sign that there's a problem -- either with the knowledge base of your staff or the database you are using.

At American Philanthropic we often recommend Salesforce. It’s free for nonprofits, fairly intuitive as databases go, quite robust, and our clients love it. More importantly, they use it!

I will tell you this, I’ve personally had clients for whom it took them 2 weeks and many tears to get me a report more basic than the above test! To recap: You need to be able to enter, find, and report on data. Someone has to take ownership. Toss the spreadsheets in the trash. If your database makes you feel like Theseus navigating the Labyrinth, then it’s time for a change.