Choosing the Right Donor Database is like Buying a Car

Welcome to “Mondays with Marissa” at DonorDreams. Every Monday throughout 2012, we will start your non-profit week off right with a technology related topic before returning our attention to donors, fundraising, resource development and all things non-profit. We hope you enjoy Marissa as a new addition to the DonorDreams family!

Having a donor database that fits the needs of your organization can make a world of difference. So, how do choose the right one? When I sat down to think about it, it is a lot like buying a car.

There are some people who are more impulsive with their car buying than others. They walk into a dealer knowing they want a blue one with a sun roof and satellite radio. While others take their time to research and test drive different models; finding a car that has exactly what they need at a price they can afford. Both consumers get what they want, but the consumer who went with the second approach might have gotten a little more for her money. Let’s apply that strategy to finding the perfect database solution for your organization.

First, you want to make a list of what you are currently using. This not only includes the current donor database you are using (if you are using one), but the types of computers, any paper filing systems, the technological competency of the people responsible for maintaining the database, etc. Everything you are using to keep track of donor interactions should go on this list. It would be helpful to break down each item into as many details as possible. For example, when cataloging the types of computers being used, list how old they are along with the installed operating system. Next to each item, make sure you include a small statement about how well the item is satisfying the needs of the organization. Being specific now will only help you later.

I should note that if there are plans to upgrade technology, expand staff, or change facilities soon, make sure you have all of those details as well. The database you choose will exist in that environment. So, you might as well plan for it.

Second, you want to prioritize the requirements that you want included in your new donor database. This is the fun part. Don’t think about money. I’ll say it again because I know, working at a non-profit you probably don’t hear that very often — don’t think about money. The goal is to figure out what features are needed  for the software of your dreams. Think about the functional requirements such as the need for data back-up, ability to print, run reports, can it run on both Mac and PC, does it need to run on both Mac and PC, does it offer a secure log in, is the design customizable, etc.

Next, turn your thoughts to donor management. What functions do you need included to successfully manage your donors? Some items might include: scheduling, reminders, calendars, events, employee matching, the ability to export to Quick Books, and forecasting.

Make your lists detailed and long. Then sit down and prioritize the list into what is needed most. This isn’t to say that you won’t be able to attain everything on your list, but having priorities will help steer you to the right vendors.

Third, investigate your options with the available vendors. (To help you narrow the field, you can check out sites such as and  Then you’ll want to take the information you receive from the vendor and see how it closely matches your lists. This, of course, is where money comes into play. When thinking about the total cost of purchasing a new database system remember that it includes: equipment, maintenance, training, implementation, customization, downtime during conversion and tech failures. Also, don’t forget to question the vendor to make sure that they are a good fit for your organization. Do they have customer service hours when you need them? Do they have a large non-profit customer base? After considering all of these options, choose the product that will work best for you. It might turn out that the best solution is continue using what you already have or switch to using a CRM.

Oh yeah, don’t be afraid to ask for references and check them!

Finding a new donor database that works best for your organization is not so different then buying a car. By assessing what you have, listing what you need and researching what’s out there; you can walk into the dealer as an educated consumer and can walk out with the product that meets your needs, most of the time at the price you had in mind.

Here’s to your health!

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on January 9, 2012, in Fundraising, Mondays with Marissa, nonprofit, resource development, technology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thanks and congrats on your first post, Marrisa. I love your comparison to car shopping. I think it is sooooo true!

    In my opinion, people get too caught up in brands and product lines (e.g. Raisers Edge, eTapestry, Results Plus, Donor Perfect, Donation Director, etc). It is very important to have a process that identified features, functions, operator skill sets and technology platform.

    Here are some additional great resources I think readers might appreciate:

    Click to access donor+management+toolkit+book.pdf

    I’ve personally facilitated donor database evaluation and search processes, and I’m more than happy to talk to people who are looking to secure some consulting help. I can be reached via The Healthy Non-Profit’s website at

    Again … congrats on a great first post.


  2. Terrific posting on what organizations need to look for when selecting a database Marissa!

    It’s been my own experience, though, that sometimes too much time is spent in selecting “the perfect database” and not nearly enough time spent on the follow-up. Let me explain. While it’s clear that selecting the appropriate database is critical, oftentimes organizations forget that thoroughly training staff and developing firm policies for data entry from the start, and recognizing the long-term value of maintaining the integrity of that data is equally as important.

    From the smallest organization to the largest, written protocols should be established early on setting forth the most exhaustive details – from your organization’s salutation standards, to who signs thank you letters – and regularly tweaked (and always put in writing).

    What salutation style does your organization prefer? First name or Mr./Ms./Mrs.? Ampersand or “and”? How do you handle deceased records? How are the grant files maintained? Do you use a separate database for tracking grants?

    What is the turnaround time for gift acknowledgement? One week? Two? Who places thank you phone calls? When and why?

    How are email addresses collected and entered?

    When deciding upon a donor database, is price your only criteria (I sincerely hope not!)?

    Once you have a database in place, is your organization recognizing the value of proper maintenance, including training and the hiring of a qualified database manager?

    I’ve worked in organizations where RaisersEdge was an absolute Cadillac…and in others where it was an Edsel.

    • Pamela … thanks for a great addition to this blog post. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve had similar experiences with databases and organizations. In fact, I’ve sometimes been amazed that people don’t appreciate how important it is build “human systems” around the donor database to ensure data gets captured and recorded. Sure, registration forms and pledge cards work to accomplish this objective, but there is so much more (e.g. cultivation and stewardship visits).

      I’m also amazed at how so much energy goes into selection and sometimes very little thought does into database “set-up” (e.g. defining funds, campaigns, appeals, etc).

      Thanks for highlighting the fact that decision-making around what kind of database is important and time consuming, but what happens after that is equally time consuming and even more important!


  3. It’s fantastic that you are getting ideas from this paragraph as well as from our argument made at this time.

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