What do nonprofits need in a database?

Image of interlocking gears representing how data fits together, including marketing, fundraising, and analytics.It depends…

I know that’s not the answer you want, but it’s the answer you need. There is no “one size fits all” database solution for nonprofit organizations. But there is a set of questions you should ask about your needs before you start talking to vendors. The answers are critical if you want to select the correct database for your organization.

Must-ask questions before you begin

    1. Why are you looking for a database right now? What is the overall problem you’re trying to solve or goal you’re trying to reach?
    2. What kind of data will you be storing and how will you use it? Fundraising? Membership? Volunteer management? Marketing/communications? Event registration? Community mobilization? Managing your organization’s programs? Some other specialized use? All of the above?

  1. Will you be housing sensitive or confidential data that has special compliance needs? Examples could be credit card info (PCI compliance), European constituents (GDPR compliance), private health info (HIPAA compliance), or information about minors (COPPA and other laws).
  2. What type of outputs will you need from the database? Lists of names and contact info? Donor dossiers for fundraising staff?
  3. Are there any other key systems already in use at your organization the database will need to talk to? An accounting system? An email marketing platform? An online form provider? Your website?
  4. What is your in-house technical capacity to manage your database? Will you have dedicated staff to manage it, customize it, train and support your users?
  5. Approximately how many records will you be storing in the database? Is it a list of a few hundred people, or is it hundreds of thousands?
  6. How many users will you have? Will it be just a few people, or will it be hundreds or even thousands of users?
  7. What is the size of your budget for initial implementation? What is the size of your budget for ongoing use, maintenance, and improvements?
  8. What is your timeline for getting the database launched?

That’s a LOT. But future you will thank past you if you take the time to really answer these questions before you start looking at software options. If you talk to a software vendor without knowing the above, your purchase decision will be driven by how good they are at selling you stuff and not your actual needs.

Related jargon: the process of answering questions 1-8 is called “requirements gathering” and the answers to those questions are your requirements.