Data Management: Will the Affordable & Adaptable Client Database Solutions Please Step Up?

The nonprofit market is awash with donor databases that all promise more money. These are attractive because they present a “win-win”—nonprofits raise more money, so they don’t mind a greater portion of those dollars being taken away in fees.

Client databases, on the other hand, don’t help raise money. They do help you understand your program so you have data with which you can make informed program design decisions, and offer better reporting on your program that will make things easier for your grant writer. Still, these databases can be a harder sell to resource decision makers on both the funding and organization sides because the benefits aren’t as clear cut.

The truth is, we need the data. We need to know what’s working, what’s not, and what kind of impact our program is having. We need a reliable way to track the basics, such as demographics, participation, so we can efficiently report to the community at large and use the data to fulfill our mission.

The Conundrum

In a quest to find the right client database, there have been some hurdles to overcome:

  • They are expensive, and can be a burden to commit to
  • There are several choices, but little information is provided up front, making it difficult to know which one is the right fit
  • The solutions available are not adaptable to existing organizational culture, making it difficult to get resources needed to both purchase the software as well as introduce a new organizational process (to already busy people)

Sometimes this choice can feel overwhelming, analogous to looking for a big personal purchase, like a car. The choices are many, and it’s difficult to know which one will really be the best one. Just like when you are looking for a car, you probably make a list of what you are looking for—fuel efficiency, cargo capacity, car color, comfort, function, and style. The same is true for a database solution. With such a large investment, it is critical to make a list of what exactly you need a database to do.

Questions to Consider

You may consider the following questions to guide your organization toward the right fit:

  • How will we use the system?
    • If for ongoing program monitoring, who will be in charge of the data entry, management, analysis, and reporting?
  • What do we want the system to do?
    • What kind of tracking does our program need?
    • Do we want automated reports?
    • Do we need analytic capability?
  • Have we defined what data we are going to collect, and therefore need to manage (e.g., survey data, program participation, outcomes)?
  • What is our budget, including ongoing support and potential time lost during implementation?
  • Who in our organization will be administrating the system, and what kind of training will they need?
  • Is this software solution flexible enough to grow with our organization?
  • How much time are we willing to invest in this system and making sure employees are trained?

Your answers to these questions may guide you to the right database. It can serve as a checklist. For example, if you know your budget, you can cross some database companies off your list. If you know you want to manage survey and demographic data, ensure this is a feature the database can provide.

While this question guide offers some clarity, it’s can still be difficult to find affordable and adaptable client database solutions. There is an opportunity for those that can provide such a database to step forward, show us what you can do.

Help us manage client data so we can use it to improve and prove our programs.

Photo credit: qimono

Chari Smith
CRSmith Consulting
Chari Smith, founder of CRSmith Consulting, believes evaluation should be accessible, practical, and usable. She is experienced in evaluation design, instrument development, data collection, quantitative and qualitative data analysis, and findings dissemination. She has taught several workshops to help nonprofit professionals understand the value and use of program evaluation. You can email her at chari [at] crsmithconsulting [dot] com.