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7 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Database for your Charity

There’s lots to consider when selecting a database. Here are 7 questions you should be asking when selecting a database for your charity.

Choosing a donor database is a big decision. You've probably inherited a tech stack that was cobbled together as the organization grew, starting with Excel, then moving to some strange DOS inspired donor management system that the first executive director found at a 90's software convention / flee market.

Now, suddenly, it's 2020 and you're managing an email marketing tool (like Mailchimp or Constant Contact), you have a website running a prebuilt Wordpress theme, a Shopify storefront, and some sort of accounting software that your finance team adores for its utility - but not necessarily for it's user friendliness.

Then, one day, you realize that you spend more time babysitting data in different systems then actually building relationships and advancing your cause.

And so you make the bold decision to pursue a new donor database system. As you explore your options (and there are many) - here are 7 things to consider.

Question 1: Does it play well with others?

The modern web has ushered in a golden age of technical solutions. No matter what tool your charity requires, there's likely an app for it.

If you want to take advantage of the best of these services - tools like Eventbrite for events, Emma for email marketing, or even something as simple as putting data on your Wordpress website, you'll want to ask yourself:

Does your database system allow you to connect to these (or other equivalent) web services? At the very least, does it integrate with tools like Zapier or Workato - allowing you to create your own integration?

Gone are the days of having to export data from one system and entering it in another. There's no need to babysit your data. The winning databases will let you build the automations and integrations you need.

Quick tip: Ask if your database has an API (Application Programing Interface). No API means other applications can't integrate with the database. And that ain't all that friendly.

Question 2: Does it do what you want?

Will the system you've selected allow you to track the data that your organization cares about?

This may seem like a silly question. It isn't.

Maybe you do short-term mission teams. You might do a fun-run every year to raise money. Maybe you're launching an 'impact investing' program that promises impact dividends in lieu of financial returns.

Whatever your unique product or data requirements might be, will the database you're evaluating be able to capture your data and turn it into something actionable?

If you find yourself shoe-horning your data into a system, trying to get it to do something for which it wasn't designed - it's likely not going to perform very well.

The wrong tool is the wrong tool. And paying the company to create something custom often turns out to be a long, expensive and frustrating proposition.

Question 3: Will it grow with you?

As your organization grows, your database requirements will change as well. You may suddenly realize that you need some sort of Marketing automation solution to start capitalizing on those anonymous visitors on your website.

You may start doing online events - or decide to hire new major donor officers to manage key territories.

Will your new database give you the tools you need as your organization grows? Does it work with marketing automation tools? Can it do something as simple as automatically assigning new donors to key relationship officers based on geography?

Changing databases can be a painful and expensive proposition. So try to find something that both serves you now - and will grow with you.

Question 4: Is it supported by a community?

If the only people that can help you solve a problem with your database (or customize something to fit your needs) are the people who created the software... you have a problem.

You will be at the mercy of this company's support staff and internal development team. No matter how well-intentioned or responsive that team might be... they are limited. They will become a bottle neck.

That's why finding a database with a supportive community is essential.

A community could be a group of other consultants (like myself). They could be other charities using the software. They could be whole other companies dedicated to seeing organizations like yours become successful.

The best systems on the market today are creating platforms that more than one company are developing on. They don't simply offer a product - they offer an ecosystem.

A good community will help answer your questions, give you ideas as to how you can make your software work better, and may even offer to help you free of charge.

If you have to choose between a database that has a vibrant, helpful community - or a company that offers a platinum customer support plan - choose the one with the community. It will cost less and serve you better.

Question 5: Can you afford to? (And can you afford not to?)

Yep. Cost is important. You'd also be wise to consider more than just cash costs. What is the human cost? The number of hours spent shuttling data between systems in processes that could be automated? The opportunity cost of missing a key piece of technology or information?

If possible, try to find a system that will both make your life easier - and not require a second mortgage.

Question 6: Can it be more than just a tool for fundraisers?

A database is not only a tool for fundraisers. It can be used to track your impact. To serve your clients. Or even to help your HR team track vacation days. It's a productivity tool. It's a way to connect and have fun.

When looking at a database for your charity - try to look beyond fundraising, beyond CRM (customer relationship management).

What else can your database be? And can the system you're evaluating live up to that vision?

Question 7: Can it keep up the times?

Technology changes. Quickly. It seems like every year there's a new social media platform. Over the last few years, we've seen the rise of new smart devices, artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive modeling, facial recognition.

Ask yourself if the database you choose will allow you to keep up with the times - or, in a few years time, you may find yourself looking for a database that can.