Lean, clean and mean: the perfect fundraising database

Databases are probably the single most important type of software for fundraisers, so it is vital to choose the right systems and make sure you are getting the most out of them. Joe Lepper reports

Database illustration
Database illustration

Improving your existing database

As the economy continues to falter and the battle for donations intensifies, fundraising databases are becoming increasingly important to charities. The information they hold is crucial to ensuring the most likely prospective donors are being targeted in the most effective way.
 
Brad May, sales director at fundraising software firm Blackbaud, says a good database should be able to link up with a charity’s online fundraising. Most charities do not have a link between their fundraising database and their internet giving and are missing out as a result, he says. If a charity can tailor a database so it links up automatically with its website, it can really increase the level ?of donations.

For example, if the data shows that a donor has only ever given sums of more than £100, a charity can automatically create an online form that gives donation options of more than £100 only.

Another way charities can improve their databases is to make sure they are driven by a clear fundraising strategy, according to Amber Bielby, trusts and foundations manager at the Museum of London.

The museum brought in its current database, Blackbaud’s The Raiser’s Edge, in 2007 after becoming frustrated with its previous system. The way information about donors was put in wasn’t thought through, says Bielby.

Information about how a donor had reacted to an appeal, such as what form of communication prompted them to respond, had been inputted in different ways. This meant we couldn’t easily pull up information about campaigns to help us plan forthcoming ones.

Data is now inputted in a more uniform way to ensure the charity is getting the most out of the strategic overview functions of the database.
Cleaning data is another way to improve your database. If data is not regularly tidied up, says May, it is easy to make embarrassing mistakes such as sending appeals to the dead. It also makes economic sense to ensure the data is accurate and you are maximising the potential of your mailshots and campaigns, he says.

Handing data over to specialist firms, which check its accuracy against lists provided by the likes of the Royal Mail, can be relatively cheap – a few thousand pounds for an average medium-sized charity, according to May.

Getting data cleaned can also prompt further improvements. Once it comes back clean and shows that someone has moved home, the charity should ensure that the database recognises how this alters the way it is targeting that donor, says May. Are there local campaigns for which donations could be sought?

When data is clean it is also easier to note missing information such as email addresses. A charity could put a prompt next to each name without an email address that triggers a request for this information, says May. Most modern databases can do this.

Animal rights charity Buav’s database, which used a combination of Valldata for its banking and financial information and The Raiser’s Edge for its donor information, required more drastic improvements. Zoe Holt, marketing, fundraising and communications director at the charity, says: The Raiser’s Edge is a great system, but unsuitable for us. It was like having a Lamborghini when what we really needed was a car to run us down to the shops. We found we needed an in-house technical database person to run it, which we did not have. This meant that we couldn’t get it to work well with our Valldata system.

Instead of overhauling the entire system, Buav decided to replace The Raiser’s Edge with a bespoke system that was simpler for its team to use and specifically designed to link with Valldata. The charity drafted in IT consultant Laurence Postgate and talked to another charity with a bespoke system, the Royal British Legion, for advice.

The £45,000 cost of bringing in the new system has been spread over three years, which has helped the charity pay for the radical overhaul. We are much happier now and are more confident using it, says Holt. It’s like the Fisher Price version of what we had before.

Getting a new database

Some charities can make improvements to their existing databases, but for others the software is so out of date it has to be replaced altogether.

After years of struggling with its old database, Prisoners Abroad is now on the hunt for a new system. James Barry, donor development fundraiser at the charity, says: When we got our system 10 years ago it was fit for purpose, but now it is frustrating to use, out of date and simply not able to keep up with the demands of a modern fundraising team.

It’s not web-based and is powered by Microsoft Access. If I want to segment a particular donor type, for example, it’s a very time-consuming process that involves taking the information out into Microsoft Excel and back again.

Flexibility is a key requirement for a new system, as is the ability to create new fields. The charity also wants to be able to get an overview of its fundraising campaigns at the click of a button. I’ve been left open-mouthed by the new systems we’ve been looking at, says Barry. They can instantly segment different groups and tell me how effective particular campaigns have been.

Barry is also looking for more automated functions. I recently tried to track down our standing order donors who had dropped off, he says. It was hugely convoluted. But the new systems we’ve seen tell you automatically when that happens.

Consultant Laurence Postgate says charities that are considering a new system should ensure they take into account the cost of training. One of the worst things a charity can do is get a new system and then just say to staff ‘here you go, start using it’, he says. Without training, staff are more likely to make inputting mistakes and the system could end up being even less effective than the one it has replaced.

One of the key questions a charity should consider is whether it needs a bespoke or an off-the-shelf database system. Postgate points out that the cost of replacing a database can range from tens of thousands of pounds to hundreds of thousands of pounds for the largest charities.

For smaller charities, it doesn’t make economic sense to get a tailor-made system, he says. It is far cheaper to get an off-the-shelf model. At the opposite end of the scale, if a charity is particularly large, has a lot of work in the public sector and has a very specific client base, a bespoke system may be more appropriate.

He adds that for a lot of medium-sized charities, even those with specific needs, an off-the-shelf system may be more appropriate.

May of Blackbaud  agrees. He says many off-the-shelf systems are designed to evolve and should last a number of years. For example, we have used ideas from our child sponsorship charities and created a child sponsorship package that any charity can use, he says.

Finally, there’s the question of what to do with your old database – known as a ‘legacy system’. Postgate says this shouldn’t be a problem because most modern databases will be able to integrate the information into the new system. Databases now also allow charities to flag up whether the information is from the old system, he says.

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