Do It Yourself Cloud Databases

Ten years ago, if you had standard database needs (like CRM) you could use a desktop-based application like ACT or the Organizers DataBase.

If you had needs that were not served by a shrink-wrapped product, you would buy MS Access or Filemaker and someone would build a special database for you.

Today, with the world moving to the cloud, the situation is similar, but the names are different:

  • If you have standard database needs (like fundraising) you might choose Etapestry or Raiser’s Edge.
  • If you have unique needs, you can build any kind of database application you want on Cloud platforms like QuickBase, Zoho,, and others.

If your needs are met by an off-the-shelf product, it usually makes sense to select that product for your organization.

On the other hand, trying to force an off-the-shelf product to meet needs that are way off the shelf is also a mistake; you spend time and money trying to make a package do what it is not supposed to do, and you inevitably hit limitations that prevent you from accomplishing what you need.

Database Solutions, Then and Now

whyjoin_ul.png Desktop Applications (then) Cloud Applications (now) whyjoin_urg.png
Serving typical nonprofit needs (off-the-shelf products) ACT, ODB, Paradigm Salesforce Nonprofit Edition, Salsa, Convio, Kintera
Adaptable platforms for serving unusual needs MS Access, Filemaker Pro, Zoho, Caspio, QuickBase
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As a general rule of thumb, we usually say that if an off-the-shelf product meets 80% of your needs, you can probably use that product and figure out a way to deal with the other 20%. But if the off-the-shelf product meets a lot less than 80%, then you probably should look at a Platform to get exactly what you need.

What will a Cloud platform do for me?

With a Cloud platform, you can build a web application that will allow you to enter the exact data that is appropriate for your program, and then produce the exact reports, charts, emails and other output that you need.
Let’s say your nonprofit runs a program that matches students with mentors. Each mentor can have more than one student, and each student (over time) can have more than one mentor. Furthermore, let’s say that a staff person is assigned to each mentor-student relationship to evaluate how it’s going and intervene if necessary. This is not an extremely complex program, but no off-the-shelf product is likely to do a good job serving these needs.

But using a Cloud platform to create a custom application, you could have one form for inputing mentor information, one for inputting student information, and another for matching mentors with students. You could have a page for managers to assign staff to each relationship, and an area for staff to monitor relationships, and describe interventions. You could even have a portal for mentors and students to schedule their meetings, and keep track of student progress!

What are my options?

Let’s take a quick look at the major cloud platforms, including, QuickBase, Zoho Creator, Eunify, Caspio, Method, and TrackVia.

But before we get to them, here are some criteria you should keep in mind:

1. Will you love me tomorrow?
It’s unfortunate, but it is important to evaluate whether the provider will be around next year, five years from now, and 10 years from now. If the provider goes bankrupt or just turns the platform off, you will probably not lose your data, but you will need to move it to a new platform – and rebuild your application. In the past few years, a few cloud providers like Coghead and Blist have gone belly up, and their customers were back at square one.
Among the providers we’re evaluating in this article, Salesforce is a global powerhouse, and will certainly not disappear. QuickBase is sponsored by Intuit so this product is not going away either. For the other platforms, you should probably do some homework before you make a commitment.

2. How much does it cost?
You pay for these platforms by subscription, and monthly costs run from free to hundreds of dollars. You’ll need to think about how many users you’ll have, and how much data you’ll be storing, to estimate your future monthly costs. Salesforce has attracted thousands of nonprofits by offering 10 free “seats” (jargon for users.) Zoho Creator also has a free option. QuickBase, on the other hand, starts at $299/month for 10 users.

3. How easy will it be to build my application?
With platforms like Zoho and QuickBase, if you are technically savvy, you may be able to build your application yourself. Salesforce is much more difficult to use, and the others are somewhere in between. Consultants often say you can have any two of the following: Power, Ease of Use, and Low Cost – but it’s tough to get all three.

4. How large are the user and developer communities?
If there are many nonprofits using the platform, you will have an easier time finding staff who are comfortable with it. And if there are a lot of developers building add-ons for the product, you will be able to link to other applications (like accounting software, mapping software, etc.) without having to build the bridge from scratch. This is called an ecosystem. Salesforce has a terrific ecosystem. QuickBase, Zoho, and Method are all working on it, but they further to go.

Overview of the available options

whyjoin_ul.png Provider Cost Ease of Customizing Quick Description Example of a Good Fit whyjoin_urg.png
Eunify $149 for 5 users fairly easy to use Online database seemingly modeled after QuickBase; solid, basic solution for online data, good support; price fairly high for product You have a somewhat complicated application for five or six users; you need it to be up quickly but you are not concerned about long-term stability
Method $40/user fairly easy Connection with QuickBooks is tight and easy; vendor and customer portals also a big plus; easy customization Method is the only one of these to connect with QuickBooks directly, so any application with a real-time financial tie-in, like a micro-loan program.
QuickBase $299 for 10 users Excellent Intuit’s backing assures platform’s future; enterprise features like SAS-70 and PCI compliance; very easy to customize; multiple forms for the same table; most powerful permissioning of these platforms Your project includes different people with varied access to data; your needs may be complex but you want to build the application yourself and you can afford $299/month.
Salesforce 10 free seats for nonprofits most challenging Powerful database platform originally set up for sales teams; nonprofit edition is set up for fundraising, not program tracking. You have a limited budget, but want to track fundraising, and do not need a large amount of customization
Trackvia Basic is free, then $35/user Good Database explicitly designed and marketed as an upgrade when you outgrow Excel; has basic database functionality. Excellent support, good tutorials; nice built in mapping and duplicate detection You have been tracking data with Excel but need some more sophistication; you don’t mind building from scratch.
Zoho Creator about $5/user Extremely Easy Exceptionally easy to use online database You want to set up your database very quickly; you have a limited budget and the database is not especially complex
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Eric Segal
Data Collaborative