Four Steps to Choosing Your Next Donor Database

Every day, some huge number of nonprofit organizations is looking for a new donor database solution. I know this because they come to forums I frequent and ask, “What donor management system should my organization buy?”

It’s an impossible question to answer. Every organization is different and has different needs. And there are a lot of donor management systems out there. Playing matchmaker – without knowing a lot of organizational details – isn’t an option (and wouldn’t be ethical).

But there are steps that every organization can take to separate the wheat from the chaff and make the right decision for themselves. I’ve been through a donor database change at every organization I’ve worked for, so let me show you my four steps to choosing a donor database.

Make Your List

Yes, there are some things that every database is going to do, and there are some things that every organization needs. But once you’re past the basics, what does your organization need? Do you need to track pledges? Manage events? Compose and send mass emails? Generate segmented mailing lists? Track online peer-to-peer fundraisers?

Every organization has different needs, and you need to know yours.

The first step in choosing a new donor database is making a list of the features you want and need, as well as features you have no use for. I recommend ranking those features as well. A simple four point scale works well:

  • Features that we need
  • Features that are important but not necessary
  • Features that are desired but not important
  • Features that you don’t have any use for

The point, of course, is to know what you’re looking for before you start looking at flashy demos and listening to salespeople. You don’t want to discover that you’re missing a vital feature – or that you’re paying for features you’re not going to use – after you’ve signed a contract.

Schedule a Live Demo

Almost nothing beats a live demo when it comes to understanding a database. When I say ‘live demo’, I don’t just mean a demo where you’re seeing someone show you the software. I mean one where you can have a conversation about the software; one where you can ask questions and get answers.

This is where your list really comes to life. If you have a feature you need (or even want), ask to see that feature demonstrated. If you need to track grants for your organization, ask the demonstrator to input and report on a grant. If you need an event registration form on your website, ask the demonstrator to show you how the software will handle that.

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, the same basic rule applies: show, don’t tell.

Also be sure to ask about pricing, support, training, conversion costs, and the roadmap for the future of the software. More companies are moving to a software as a service model, and you’re signing up for a relationship, not just a product.

Play in the Sandbox

The only thing that beats a live demo is the chance to use the software. A sandbox is a live version of the database with actual data – usually dummy data – already in it. Ask if there’s a sandbox that you can access and, if there is, play in it!

This is your chance to try to do all of those things you need to do. Be sure to try everything. If you’re going to have to enter a hundred new constituents from your annual event, make sure that you can do that. If there’s a report you have to generate – even if it’s just once a year – try to create it. If you need to send an email based on whether the constituent has opened a previous email or made a gift in the last three month, make sure that’s possible.

And if you’re not the only person who will be using the database, share it! The people who will be entering information or generating reports need to be comfortable with the system, and may have insight that you lack.

Talk to Other Users

The greatest advocate – and the greatest critic – is the end user. Every company should be willing to give you a list of organizations that use their software (and maybe even some who recently left). Talk to people on that list!

Ask people who actually use the software on a day-to-day basis about their experience. What’s been the best thing? What’s been the worst? What workarounds have they needed? What hasn’t worked as expected? How’s the support? Listen to their answers and try to get a variety of perspectives.


There’s no such thing as the perfect database that will do everything you want exactly the way you want it. But there are, more than likely, a handful that will be close. These steps won’t guarantee that you’ll know exactly which product to buy. But they will help you narrow it down to the best.

And isn’t the best what your organization deserves?

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