Your data map is one of several key resources to prep before you launch a new data system. Image: Creative Commons, Kitty Terwolbeck.

Six steps to implement your client tracking database

We’ve all been there. Frustrated with maintaining 15 different spreadsheets, 30 documents, and 19 surveys, a nonprofit leader says, “Enough! Let’s just get a data system.” But it’s never that easy, and inevitably many organizations (and their vendors!) wind up struggling in a high-stakes, high-cost maelstrom that satisfies nobody.

What if a bunch of small-to midsized nonprofits, data system vendors, and foundations—all that have experience in rocking a new data system—gave you some pointers? As it turns out, everyone who has had a successful (or even unsuccessful) implementation has similar advice: While you need focused effort on actual vendor selection, you also need to be ready before you start that process.

So here are a few tips to help get you started on a successful path:

1. Stop and ask why you are doing this.

It seems obvious, but many organizations pursue getting a new data system without articulating what is going to get better when they do. Think of it as beginning with the ending: know what success will look like!

2. Give it time.

Implementing a system isn’t a hurry-up affair. Finding the vendor happens later in the process, after you’ve figured out the critical “why” and documented your readiness to move ahead with an implementation.

3. You’ll want your Super Squad.

Building the right team is crucial for success. Organizations that rely on the software vendor to handle everything or that load the entire project on a single person tell tales of painful, unsuccessful implementations. On the other hand, identifying the critical roles of your team ensures that your key players will have time, and that the perspectives of many are included in the process.

4. Get your GPS.

Program models and data maps are critical documents that offer big-picture views of an organization and its data. In turn, they create clear directions and priorities for what information to collect in the new system.

5. Shop around.

Just because a system worked for a partner organization or a colleague doesn’t mean it is the right system for you. Looking around, articulating what you want, and conducting a thoughtful search will help land the right partner. And don’t skip the reference checks!

6. Don’t recreate the wheel.

You can find a fair number of online tools to help get you rolling, and templates to help you do it. Key tools include making sure you have a logic model or program theory document ready to go, possibly doing an organizational analysis like strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (SWOT), and building some workflow diagrams. You’ve even got a few resources out there that can help you prepare a portfolio – your vendors will love you for it!

  • The “Getting Ready” Playbook, published by Sam Doorman for the Salesforce Foundation. Strong overview to the process and decision-making organizations need to make when considering a new system.
  • The Making Wise Decisions Toolkit, published by the S.H. Cowell Foundation, authored by Public Profit and–full disclosure–me. A free guidebook with connected templates to step through the process, and links to resources produced by our fabulous colleagues.

The takeaway: Knowing yourself is the best first step to finding a great vendor partner. It kinda sounds like dating advice, but then again you are heading into a long-term partnership!

Betsy Block
For over 20 years Betsy has worked with individuals and organizations in all sectors to achieve their best possible outcomes. Her life path has been full of rich experiences that have informed her diverse and unique approach that is results-driven and impact-focused. As a founder whose experience spans small business development, telecommunications software development, government performance auditing, nonprofit evaluation/performance management, and life/career coaching, she has the experience necessary to connect to and support community leaders and change makers. Bachelor of Arts, Summa Cum Laude from Boston University Masters of Public Policy, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California-Berkeley Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC) from the Coaches Training Institute Associate Certified Coach (ACC) through the International Coach Federation.