I get a lot of emails like the following from small nonprofits:
We desperately need to get a new donor database and most of them are totally unaffordable!!
Looking at the Idealware Low Cost Database report, I find that there are so many considerations that it is quite complicated to make a choice. I am tending towards (system x) because it would seem to match what we need right away, and we could afford it.
Could you please advise me as to whether this is a good choice, or whether we should consider other options as well?
Here’s how I respond to questions like this:
I can’t say whether (system x) would be a good fit for you. As you said, there are a lot of considerations. I’d need to spend time learning about your organization to make any kind of informed recommendation.
You said you’ve read the Idealware/NTEN Consumer’s Guide, so you know that (system x) got a strong rating there. And many of my clients use (system x) and like it. But none of that means it will be right for you.
The only way I know of to answer your question is to go through these steps:
Write down what you need in a database, in as much detail as you can. Then identify the deal-breakers on that list. A deal-breaker is a feature you truly cannot live without. Even if the database could do everything else on your list, was easy to use, and the price was right, you couldn’t use it without this one feature. For instance, you might need the ability to target direct mail (and email?) to constituents based on factors like past donations, interests, event attendance, recency of gifts, lifetime giving total, etc. Or you might have some reports that are mandatory, like a lapsed donor report.
Once you know what you’re looking for you need to test vendors against those needs. You can start by sending out a Request for Information or Request for Proposals with some yes/no/maybe questions about your top needs (e.g., Can we send mass emails directly from the database? Can your system accept donations online?, etc.). I view this step as optional, but it can help you eliminate vendors that can’t meet your top needs, or include vendors you didn’t previously know much about.
You also need to know what it costs to get started with your system (purchase, conversion, training, etc.) and what’s the 5-year cost (some systems cost a lot in year 1 but not much in subsequent years, some don’t cost to get started but the annual costs can add up). This step is not optional. It might be part of the above RFP or RFI, or you might just ask about costs.
Next, you need to see the vendors demonstrate how their systems will meet your needs. Give them a list of features they need to show or steps they need to go through (e.g., show how to send a mass email, or show how to enter a donation that will be split between 3 funds, or between 3 donors).
Next, you need to get a demo copy of the database and do your own testing. How easy is it to do things you’ll need to do regularly, like enter gifts, look up donors, change addresses, and run reports.
Then you need to check references. Talk to organizations with similar fundraising programs, staffing, IT support, etc. Ask each one the same questions and compare the results.
Last, you need to get a contract that shows you all of the costs, including setting up the system, converting your data, (ideally) documenting your data entry processes, and training your staff.
FYI, Idealware has a webinar on this topic coming up in September:
They also have recordings of past webinars. Here’s one of mine:
And here’s one by Eric Leland, the main author of their Low Cost Database guide:
I hope this helps.