Choosing a donor database
At the root of most fundraising campaigns is the donor database. Ranging from simple spreadsheets with donor phone numbers and addresses to powerful, proprietary software with contact and giving history, estimated income and more, these databases help nonprofit organizations and charities reach out to those most connected to the organization.But with all the options for databases on the market today, how do you choose which one is right for your organization? We have a few pointers to get you started on the right foot…

Convene the right team
Start by gathering a group of people to serve on the database selection team. This team should consist of employees and board members who are subject matter experts in the areas that the database is going to address—marketing professionals, development and finance professionals, grant writers, gift and data entry personnel and IT and website staff.

Complete a needs assessment
With the team together, move toward discussions of needs and requirements in order to determine a list of priorities. A white board and markers or notepads and pens come in handy for this part! Think about: What are your requirements? What’s working well now? What can you not give up? And what’s wrong now? What are goals in doing this project? What are you trying to fix? Maybe it’s not something that’s broken now, but it’s something that, as you consider the growth of the organization, you think will become a problem in the future. For example, you’ve never done major-gifts fundraising, but you’re going to start within the next year or two and your current software won’t support that activity.

Here are the questions to ask yourself and your team:

  • Is software really the problem? It can be all too easy to blame the technology. But sometimes we do so without considering the bigger picture. For example, a great database could be in place but isn’t integrated with the website properly so you can’t process online gifts. Or, the people who were originally trained to use the software have left the organization and those remaining don’t know how to use the software most effectively. Or perhaps the database may have modules that can do what you need but you haven’t purchased them.If software really isn’t the problem, new software isn’t going to make your life any easier. So first you need to decide whether this is a truly a software problem, or a people or process or policy/procedure/communication problem.
  • What do you really need? You need to distinguish wants from needs. A true need is a single requirement that will disqualify any system that lacks it, regardless of price or other attractive features. Do you need or want the ability to process online gifts? Do you need or want the online form to look like the design of your website? Do you need or want e-newsletter/e-mail marketing integration? Do you need or want detailed prospecting information?Those features that are not mandatory need to be prioritized.  When you look at systems, you should first eliminate those that don’t meet your mandatory requirements. Then you can and focus on those that meet most of your top priorities.
  • What can you afford and support? There may be a database out there that can meet every one of your requirements, but will it cost vastly more than you can spend? Will it require new staff to support it – positions you can’t afford? Or will it require a higher level of technical skills than your staff possess? Can you afford and sustain a subscription-based model or one that will require the purchase of updates in the future? Think about it.

Identify a pool of potential vendors
Now that you know what you’re looking for and have a ballpark budget in mind, you need to identify a list of potential vendors. If you are part of a network of organizations that do similar types of work, that’s usually a great place to start.

You can also check out sites like TechSoup and Charity Channel for interactive feedback. Talk about your specific requirements so that you hear from comparable organizations.

Ultimately, look for a software vendor that can meet your needs list in your budget and one that has documented experience working with organizations that are similar to yours.

Test vendors against your needs
Issue a request for proposal (RFP) and scheduling demonstrations is the next step after developing a short list of potential vendors. This is the test drive phase—see if you can truly afford what you need and some of what you want and experience whether or not you like the interface before committing.

  • Usability testing. After the demos, ask for access to a demo copy of the system. This could be a disk the vendor sends you, or they could make the system available to you online.Then, gather your team to make a list of things that should be tested and test them. Things from the internal side—like creating new records, running reports and integration—as well as things from the external side—like completing a donation form and signing up for e-mail updates. Have team members record and report out their experiences. How easy are these tasks to complete?

After these steps, it’s crunch time. Work with your team to come to a consensus about which software solution best fits the bill. Be open to discussion, weigh pros and cons and then move forward with purchasing. Be sure to thank your database selection team for all their hard work—handwritten notes and gifts like delicious treat box or courier business totes are always appreciated!


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