Think Your Nonprofit Can’t Afford a Database? Think Again.

Recently, I was talking to the executive director of a small nonprofit. She mentioned that her organization didn’t have a donor database – they were keeping donor information in spreadsheets – but she understood why one is important. A good database is your institutional memory; it’s where you, your colleagues, and your successors will be able to see the history, status, and growth of your relationships with donors and volunteers.

So her organization was getting its first donor database… by having a volunteer create one in Microsoft Access.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to create a good homegrown database. But there are also serious challenges. Not only do you need a well built database – one that you can’t accidentally ‘break’ – you need one that will help you raise money. You need to be able to track donor information, gift information, and interaction information. You need to be able to report on all of that information and more. You need to be able to communicate with constituents through mail, email, and social media.

And those are just the basics.

It’s easy to think that a system that can do all of this would be excruciatingly expensive. When money – and time – is tight, it seems much easier to have a volunteer create a homegrown solution than to get a professionally designed, developed, and supported database system.

But the reality is that there are several affordable database solutions for small nonprofits.

Bloomerang offers a free lite version (without email functionality) for small nonprofits and a very cheap Techsoup version (with full functionality) for slightly larger organizations. Even the standard license is fairly inexpensive at the lowest tier!

Salesforce is a very popular customer relations system in the for-profit world, and they also offer a package for nonprofits. Their enterprise edition plus nonprofit starter pack includes a long list of features. Best of all, they offer up to 10 free user licenses to qualified organizations and deep discounts on additional licenses.

CiviCRM is a free and open source database that works with WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla based websites. Because it is open source and community supported, it’s a bit more difficult to set up and maintain than Bloomerang or Salesforce. But it’s also powerful, customizable, and extendable.

Of course, there are many other development database solutions out there. The point is that there’s almost no reason to create a homegrown database when you can have a professionally designed, developed, and supported system that can actually help you raise money and improve donor engagement.