Experts share essential advice on choosing a charity database » Charity Digital News

Experts share essential advice on choosing a charity database


There are lots of things to think about when choosing a database, such as the type of analysis wanted and budget. In a recent post from the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, three IT experts share essential advice.

Charity IT consultant Peter Flory said: “There are hundreds of systems out there. About 40-50 specifically work with the not-for-profit sector, and there are a dozen regularly used by the sector. Some are better than others on one aspect or another, but basically they can all do at least 80% of the functions that most not-for-profit organisations require. It’s the extra 20% that can make a difference. Do you want a system that has the basics but isn’t easy to manipulate for extras, or one that you can manipulate a lot, but requires tech-savvy staff? How much do you want to pay and what kind of analysis and reporting would you like?”

Flory notes how some charities can end up paying more than they need to. He said: “I had one client spend £20,000 on a database because another charity down the road did, but they only really needed to spend £2,000 a year.”

Ivan Wainewright, a database consultant and founder of the website IT for charities, says that many older systems aren’t optimised for new technology and social media . He said: “There are broadly two types of database available. There’s the traditional type, which has all the basic features a charity might need, ie managing direct debits and gift aid and so on. This type includes well-known names like Raiser’s EdgeThankQ, and ACS. These are much less configurable than the other type, CRM (customer relationship management). Some of the most solid and well-known options under the CRM banner include names like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics. These are often used by the commercial sector and are far more flexible, but don’t have the basics and customising them for what you need can require a lot of effort.”

Barnardos is using Salesforce because it wants to share and analyse different data across the organisation. But Breast Cancer Care, for example, uses a more traditional system, which is just focused on fundraising.”

David Eder, chair of the Institute of Fundraising’s technology special-interest group, says that open source CRM solutions might be the cheaper option for charities which have tech-savvy staff. He said: “Excel won’t do analytics or process data in any particular way for you, such as tell you how likely your donors are to give to a particular campaign, like some of the more advanced ones will, but it can be a budget option for the basics, like recording donors’ details.”

It is essential for charities to share information through a database, Eder adds. “There are often different departments trying to protect their own contacts, but how will you know if someone else has just been in touch with your contact if you don’t share your information? For a database to work properly, departments can’t work in silos as is still the case at many charities. If you are going to invest a lot of time and money, make sure your database is a real central point of information, so that it really works for you. Finally, charities are increasingly asking to see and use a prototype of a database before they buy it, this can be quite useful.”


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  • pedrodude

    While it may sound like heresy to any other data analysts reading this, but Excel isn’t just “a budget option”; it is often exactly the right solution. It all depends on scalability requirements [if you end up with several spreadsheets all linked to each other it may be time for an upgrade] but if your need for analysis is predictable and your data is also reasonably constant, other solutions may be overkill. The fact that Excel is ubiquitous, cheap, compatible, and pretty much everyone can use it to some degree goes a long way. And I’ve seen some surprisingly sophisticated propensity modelling going on in excel, using not much more than vlookups and pivottables.

    However issues arise where organizations which really do have some quite complex analysis needs, try to “get away with” using Excel due to it being the budget option instead of an appropriate alternative. This can create incredible bottlenecks in rather important business processes.