Helping Nonprofits Build Databases

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Habitat for Humanity. Doctors Without Borders. The United Way. The American Red Cross. These are just some of myriad nonprofits that help countless people on a daily basis.



Without these organizations, after-school programs would not be funded, individuals in disaster and war zones would not get medical attention, and families without inadequate housing would not become first-time home owners.



Nonprofits do not operate in a vacuum, however — they rely on donations and volunteers to fulfill their missions. But as it is with for-profit organizations, nonprofits need a sound technological infrastructure, including a good database.



In this sense, nonprofits and for-profit organizations do not necessarily differ a great deal, said Eric Leland, founder and director of Leland Design, who also has spent the last 13 years working with progressive organizations tackling online and offline technology challenges.



“People often will hype up the ‘vast’ differences between nonprofits and for-profits, and in many cases, they’re really not vast in terms of what they’re trying to track and report,” he said. “But there are a few differences, and one key area is fund raising. Nonprofits, by their very nature, often are not necessarily selling anything — they’re making their money through donations and grants from individuals or corporations. Tracking that information, knowing who those folks are, who’s making the grants, what grants are available, the amount of the grants and integrating that with your accounting system — all of that is fairly unique to the nonprofit sector.”



Leland said the nature of nonprofits’ databases also do not always line up with that of for-profits’ databases.



“The other thing I’ve always found unique, and I’ve worked on both sides of this, is that databases required by nonprofits, especially the small to midsized ones, tend to be very shallow in terms of how many records are being stored but very complex in terms of the relationships they’re trying to store about people,” he said. “You often have a nonprofit that wants to know everything about a person: who they are and how to contact them, to what is their profile in terms of their volunteer ability, donations, membership, etc.”



On the flip side of the coin, Leland said databases for both for-profits and nonprofits emphasize the centrality of the individual.



“With the rise of databases in constituent relationship management (CRM), you find that there’s a lot of overlap in terms of tracking information about people and the interactions that you have with people,” he said. “How did I talk to this donor, or group of donors, today? How did I talk to this volunteer, or group of volunteers, today? Have they paid for the event? Have they registered? Have they come? Did I follow up?”



There are some issues related to databases that are unique to nonprofits, though, one of which is related to nonprofits operating on much smaller budgets than for-profit organizations.



“Often, nonprofits are really stretching the dollar much further than even small for-profit organizations to find really innovative, but also very sustainable, ways to build databases,” he said. “For instance, a nonprofit very often is working with volunteers in a whole variety of capacities to get their program needs met, which is something businesses are not doing very often. As a result, a nonprofit will often find a willing volunteer or team of volunteers to build something technological, maybe a database.



“They tend to build systems not because they have a lot of education or experience in building a database before but because they’re willing and have the time to do it. As a result, it can be a risky venture. Sometimes, it works out well, but more often, it ends up working rather poorly. The database sort of gets built, it kind of works, it starts to not work all the time — this is a typical scenario.”




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