It’s not enough to know what kinds of database might work for you. You also need to carefully think through how to find the right database for your needs, and how to get it up and running smoothly. Follow these five steps to ensure that you successfully choose and implement the right database for your organization.
1. Define your needs
Regardless of the type of database you’re considering, the first critical step is defining your needs. For a minor purchase, this step might involve a quick conversation with other staff, but for a large, mission-critical piece of software, it might take months of work.
Take a look at the system you’re currently using. How does it meet your needs? What functionality is missing? Talk to your current system’s vendor and see if it can be improved, expanded, or customized to address all your requirements. Making use of existing systems means saving the time, money, and frustration of choosing, installing, and learning a whole new application.
Be sure to talk to everyone in your organization who will be using the database to build a list of required features. This way, you can evaluate your current and new systems based on the needs of the people who will be using it. Understanding the needs of your users from the beginning will go a long way in getting buy-in and adoption later in the process.
2. Create a shortlist
If you do need a new database management system, the next step is creating a shortlist to winnow down all the possible options to a manageable list. For a minor purchase, this might mean simply talking to a few people and choosing a single package to explore further, but if you’re making more of an investment, you’ll want to investigate more in-depth and identify a list of three to five software options.
Websites like Idealware and TechSoup are good places to start researching. Talk to similar nonprofits to see what they’re using. This can be a useful way to see the benefits and drawbacks of different database options that are specific to your organizations.
If you’re looking to purchase a fairly complicated system, you might want to consider engaging a consultant who can do an audit of your current system’s capabilities, your organization's needs, and match you with an appropriate solution.
3. Evaluate your options
The next step is evaluating the different database option on your shortlist—you wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it, would you? Try out each system on your own, or ask the vendors to demo them for you.
Most vendors will be happy to provide a trial version or demo their product over the web, which makes it easy to see their systems in action. If a vendor is going to give you a guided tour, take some time beforehand to define the specific features and functions you want to see and send them to the vendor in advance.
Your relationship with a vendor is one your organization will maintain for several years, so take the time to find not only the database that works for your organization, but also a vendor that clicks with you. What matters most at the end of the day is the ability of the tool you choose to meet your needs and to be a manageable cost, both upfront and over time.
4. Implement your software
Once you’ve chosen your database, you’re only about half done—you still need to implement it. Depending on the type of system you’ve chosen, you may need to think about migrating data or moving it from your old systems into your new one. This is rarely an easy step, and it requires careful consideration and planning.
In addition, no matter how amazing your new system is, it’s useless to you if no one knows how to use it. However big or small your new system is, make sure you plan for training and supporting staff. Who should they turn to with questions? What should they do—or not do—with the system?
This step is essential to maximize user adoption. If you’ve implemented a system that meets their needs and trained them to use it, you’ll find that the users in your organization will be a lot more satisfied with the software you choose.
5. Maintain your database
No system will maintain itself—particularly one that includes data. Caring for your data means establishing policies to ensure your data stays clean and actionable, and that it’s easy to access the information you need from the system. The best way to keep data useful is to do so right from the start: What should staff think about when entering records? Who will monitor data quality?
Help your staff know what they should enter and when, and define the steps that will ensure your data is clean and usable when someone tries to find something. It’s also important to periodically check your data and clean up any mistakes that may have slipped through.
Follow these five steps when implementing your database, and you’ll find yourself well on your way to being a data-driven organization!
Director of Operations, Now IT Matters
Michelle is the Director of Operations at Now IT Matters and a Certified Salesforce Administrator and Developer. Previously, she administered the Eloqua and Salesforce databases for PBS and provided support to PBS member stations on implementing a custom Visualforce donation page. Before joining PBS, she was a Program Manager at BRAC USA for more than four years, during which she provided marketing support and built an online, social media and traditional media strategy for the largest NGO in the world. Additionally, she’s implemented and maintained a several Salesforce and other CRM databases and developed multi-channel donor acquisition and retention strategies. Michelle has an MBA from the Stern School of Business at NYU.