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Tracking constituents in small and mid-sized organizations

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How are small organizations tracking constituents? What are they struggling with, and what works well? In partnership with the River Network, we spoke to a number of river conservation groups about their constituent databases, and reported back with best practices and case studies that apply to any smaller organization.

If someone asked you how many of your new donors also volunteered this year, how long would it take you to answer? What about the number of activists you have in a particular county? In what areas has water quality improved most over the last five years?

Databases can transform organizations' ability to answer these types of questions. They are an invaluable tool for small organizations in particular, as they are a very cost-effective way to focus energy on the things that are really making a difference. Databases allow you to find and manage data for thousands of people or programs. Creating a list of people to contact becomes straightforward. And database software makes reporting much easier: Rather than having to laboriously tally spreadsheets or contacts, you can generate overviews at the touch of a button.

But with this power comes some complexity. There are many options and factors to consider. To help you navigate the process, we've talked to a number of small and mid-sized organizations to understand what they're struggling with, what's working well, and what questions they have. As we worked with the River Network to write this article, all the examples and case studies reference organizations that work for the protection and conservation of U.S. lakes and rivers — but are very relevant to any smaller organization. Below, we offer a set of database best practices for river organizations and a set of case studies describing what others are doing in this area.

What is a database?

A database, at least for the purposes of this article, is something that allows you to organize - and thus view and edit - a related set of information. A database might store all your constituents, all of your educational programs, environmental data, or anything else you want to be able to easily track and report on.

What about Excel? Is it a database? Well, technically it is, but it's not the type of database that we're talking about here. When most people refer to a database, they mean what's called a “relational database.” A relational database can link multiple types and levels of information together, making it far easier to store, say, people, the organizations they work for, and volunteer programs, and manage the relationships between all of those things.

This article focuses on relational database software - anything from Access or FileMaker Pro (tools that allow you to build your own database) to packaged software like GiftWorks, DonorPerfect, DemocracyInAction, or Salesforce - that can help you manage your organization's information.

Planning for a database

Before you consider what actual database tool is right for you, it's important to think through what's important for your organization.

Understand who will use it. Your organization's databases shouldn't be the domain of the technical. Many people will need to use it - for instance, a constituent database should be used by anyone looking up a constituent phone number or tracking a contact with someone.

Think through the processes and data you need to track. What do you currently do that should be supported in the new system? What isn't working well right now that could be improved with a new system? What do you think you might want to do down the road? Try to consider all the ways that you could interact with the data you're going to track.

Begin with your outputs in mind. Make a list of the reports, lists, and other things that you will want to output from the system. What information will you need? In what ways will you need to filter the data?

Get a sense for what's possible. Understanding what organizations like yours are doing, or some of the features that are offered in common database software can help you understand what you might want to do yourself. On the other hand, be critical of “sexy” features. Don't be seduced by features that are just nifty rather than actually useful.

Prioritize your needs. Define which of your needs are critical, and which are just nice to have. Trying to support everything at once can result in a system that's too complicated for your needs or not being able to find a system at all.

Planning sets the groundwork for a good database choice, and for effective use of your database once you get it. A little thought and a few meetings up front can make the difference between a great technology tool and an expensive mistake.

Choosing a solution

With a sense of what you're looking for, you'll need to take a look at the available database packages.

Know the options. Don't just decide to go with the only software package with which you're familiar. Get a sense of what's available. For an overview, see our article A Few Good Low-Cost Constituent Databases.

Be skeptical of building your own. It can seem like an easy answer to just build something that does exactly what you want in Access or FileMaker Pro, and this might make sense if you have unusual needs. Ask yourself, though, whether your organization is effectively equipped to produce software. Do you have the resources to design it, build it, and test it effectively? To maintain and update it down the road? What will happen if the person who builds it is no longer available?

Integrate, don't proliferate. Strive to have as few databases as possible. All the information about each person your organization touches should ideally be in a single database. If you find that you need to add another database system, think through how you will integrate the data with the systems you already have.

Use price as only one criteria. A database that is free or cheap but doesn't meet your needs isn't useful. In fact, the time you spend in trying to work around it is likely to cost you far more than you would have paid for the right database.

Don't assume bigger is better. More features and more power almost invariably translate to something that will be harder for your staff to learn and use. Look for something that meets your core needs without a bunch of additional features.

You'll need to balance the desire to look at every possible solution and find the perfect database with the realities of your time and the market. If you define your needs up front, though, you be able to tell when a database is good enough to be effective for your organization.

Database care and feeding

Picking a great solution is just the beginning of a process to make sure your database is useful and used.

Don't underestimate the start-up process. Getting your new database ready to use can be time consuming. You'll need to move all your existing data - whether from an existing database or from spreadsheets, Outlook, or other sources - into the database, and train your staff in how to use the new package. Keep in mind that change can be difficult, and you may need to work through resistance to the new system.

Define and document data practices and standards. Make sure that everyone understands how data should be entered. What does each category or code mean? Should addresses be capital or lowercase? Data that's entered inconsistently is a nightmare when it's time to create lists or reports. Written documentation or “cheat sheets” of best practices - particularly on how to use categories or codes in the system - can make a huge difference in people's ability to use these practices effectively.

Put someone in charge. Someone needs to keep an eye on the database and the data that's entered to make sure that things are going smoothly and to troubleshoot problems. Staff members will need to know who to go to with questions as well.

With a little bit of time devoted to training, standards, and oversight, you can keep things on an even keel and avoid big headaches down the road.

Some database case studies

As mentioned above, one of the best ways to learn about the benefits, challenges, and strategies of database is to understand what organizations like yours are using, and what they're struggling with. To get you started, we offer below three cases studies of different organizations using databases in different ways.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition protects the lands, waters, and wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. It's a big job, and they're a sizable organization: 25 staff members in four different offices, with a base of about 22,000 members, donors, and activists. They use two different packaged database systems to manage these constituents: DonorPerfect, to track their members and donors, and Democracy in Action to manage their activist email addresses.

DonorPerfect allows them to effectively track information about the members and donors who give the organization money. They can create targeted lists for direct mailings using categories, understand how well a particular list is performing, identify members who are up for renewal, and much more. The database is hooked into accounting, so that the donations and membership fees can be easily tracked.

They use Democracy in Action to send out email blasts to ask their advocates for help, and to process online donations. Prior to each advocacy email, they export a list of updates and additions to their constituent list from DonorPerfect, and load it into Democracy in Action to ensure they're sending to the most up-to-date list. In this way, Democracy in Action serves as the central repository for their email list. On the other hand, DonorPerfect is the primary source for donor information, so when an online donation comes in through Democracy in Action, that donation is entered by hand into DonorPerfect as well.

These two databases are working well for the coalition. They'd prefer to have only one database rather than the two, but they've invested so much time and energy in working with DonorPerfect over the years that they feel the substantial effort to move their data wouldn't be worthwhile. While Democracy in Action can store some donor and member data, and they could integrate DonorPerfect into their website to handle email and online donations to a certain extent, neither of them alone would meet their needs as well as the two systems working together.

What advice do they have for other organizations? Heidi Barrett, the Associate Director of Development, suggests that organizations start by thinking clearly about what information they will want to use for outreach and reports, both now and in the future. While it's hard to know everything that might be desirable down the road, by planning in advance and leaving room for growth, organizations can reduce the need to go back through all their data later to change a category or add a field.

The South Yuba River Citizens League

When the South Yuba River Citizens League set up their databases systems more than five years ago, they did a lot of research into their options. They were looking for a solution that could handle four different types of data. They needed to track not only information about their members and contacts, but logistical information - such as rentals, contacts, and follow-ups needed for their Film Festival. For the set of programs that the organization runs within public schools, they wanted to store the program schedule and demographic data for each school and be able to easily generate reports describing the types of students and schools they had reached. They also needed to track environmental quality data for their river monitoring program.

They wanted to track these four kinds of data in a similar database environment, although they knew that they would need different types of fields and processes for each. To solve this issue, they opted to build four custom databases in FileMaker Pro, a software package that allows those experienced in database setup to create their own databases. One of their staff members carefully designed and built software that was highly tailored to their needs — with exactly the fields and reports they wanted, and custom alerts that facilitate their organizational process. In addition, FileMaker provided them with out-of-the-box functionality to generate complex lists, reports, and mail merges.

These databases have served the organization efficiently and well. However, five years later, they are showing their age. They were built on a 1998 version of FileMaker Pro, which is not only outdated itself, but precludes the organization from updating the operating system and other software on their desktops. For instance, they can't run a current version of Word and FileMaker Pro 98 on the same computer.

They are planning on upgrading the FileMaker Pro version, but this will require substantial updates to the code underlying the databases. The original database designer is no longer on staff, so they are considering hiring her back as a consultant to help with the update, or are also looking into FileMaker Pro consultants that are listed on the FileMaker Pro website.

For their environmental quality database in particular, they are looking at new options for a different reason: they'd like to establish a common database format with a number of other monitoring sites. By choosing a common database, they'll be able to share data and do richer analyses across organizations.

Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council

Over the past year, the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council has participated in a database selection process with a group of other small watershed councils and land trusts from around Rhode Island. This collaborative was formed with the idea that if they could select a database that each of the organizations could implement, they could then share the costs of selection, training, support, and more.

They went through a process to identify what features were desirable in a system, and what were “must-haves” for at least some of the organizations. Some of the key things that they identified were:

  • Online access. As many of the organizations had people in various locations, the ability to access the database from the internet was important.
  • Donor, member, and volunteer tracking. They wanted to be able to track all of their constituents in one place.
  • Donations. Tracking the source of each donation, as well as a donor's donation history, was critical. Some of the organizations also needed to be able to track more complex donations of land or trusts.<
  • Broadcast email. They needed software that provided or seamlessly integrated with functionality to send emails to lists.
  • Households and addresses. The handing of multiple people in the same household, and of seasonal addresses for Rhode Island's summer population, was a key concern.
  • Reporting. It was important to be able to customize reports with both fields and filters.
  • Ease of use. They didn't want a system that would require extensive training for each staff member.

They took a careful look at database packages including iMIS, eTapestry, DonorPerfect, and Salesforce. They found iMIS to be too complicated and hard to use for their needs, although it was very powerful. eTapestry and DonorPerfect Online were promising, but were quite expensive for those organizations with more sizable numbers of constituents.

Salesforce seemed like the best option. It appeared very effective for their needs, is used by a number of environment nonprofits, and the software itself is free for small nonprofits. While the tool is oriented towards business users, the collaborative found this to be an advantage in some ways, as Salesforce's larger market means more money can be spent on development.

However, the package uses business-focused language and processes that will need to be customized to be more appropriate their needs. The collaborative is considering hiring a consultant who can tailor a single template that will meet the needs of the majority of the organizations. The collaborative has budgeted several thousand dollars towards this customization process. In addition, each organization in the collaborative will need to move their data from its current location to the new system. Fees for mapping and transferring the data could be $2000 to $5000 or more, depending on the complexity of the current setup. For organizations tracking less than 1000 or so constituents, they suspect that it will be less costly simply to re-enter the data into the new system.

They advise other organizations to look at prospective software packages carefully. Test drive the system yourself, if you can, and try out actual tasks. Ask for references, and talk to organizations that are similar to yours that are using the system (and if there aren't any, consider that a danger sign).

Wrapping it up

Databases can provide huge benefits, but choosing one wily-nilly and slapping it into place is likely to cause only trouble down the road. Think through what you need, take a look at what other organizations are doing, choose a solution carefully, and keep a careful eye on your ongoing data and processes. With some care, a database can be a tremendously powerful too, allowing you to easily identify groups of constituents, quickly generate reports, improve your programs and relationships, and, above all, to better achieve your mission.

Laura S. Quinn is founder and director of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to

Copyright 2007 Idealware. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.

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