How to upgrade your data system

Sue Fidler provides some advice on how to select a data-management system that suits the needs of your charity.

Nearly every charity needs to store data, whether it's contacts, financial information or details of donors.

If you need to buy or upgrade your data-management systems, the first and most important thing to do is write a specification of requirements. This is essential, because if you do not have a strong and thoroughly researched SOR, you are not going to end up with a database that meets your needs.

Specify your needs

Never try to cut costs by not doing a SOR. In the long run, you will waste more money than you save, either because you won't get the system you need or because you will end up paying your supplier to write one for you. Writing an SOR needn't be daunting - just follow the series of simple steps (see box, right).

Then decide who is going to manage your database once it's up and running. One central database administrator is crucial to the long-term health of your system and the cleanliness of your data.

Issue a tender

Gather all this information together, and you have an SOR. Once you are confident it is complete and realistically represents what you need your database to do, then you can issue it as a tender and it will be time to decide what sort of system you buy.

For tiny charities with a very small amount of data, it is still possible to use a simple spreadsheet package such as Microsoft Excel. However, as soon as that charity reaches several hundred records, or complex data such as multiple gifts start to emerge, the organisation will need to upgrade to a database.

Web links

In the past, many charities opted for Microsoft Access databases at this stage, which they asked somebody's uncle to write. But databases written by amateurs often resulted in systems that were hard to use. Professional coders will now use SQL code, which is more advanced and capable of linking to the web.

A host of off-the-shelf products are available, particularly fundraising, membership and events packages. These range from fairly cheap systems priced at about £10,000 through to well-known branded systems with price tags of £30,000 or more.

Monitor and evaluate

The biggest data problem most charities face is that they do more than just one thing. Many charities fundraise, host events and groups, have membership schemes and receive grants. As they get pushed for more detailed information on spending, more charities need service delivery and key performance indicator reporting. A monitoring and evaluation system should be an integral part of their set-up.

Until recently, most charities faced a stark choice: either buy an off-the-shelf system or commission a bespoke system. With off-the-shelf systems, you get exactly what it says on the tin - support, access to an online user community and upgrades included in the price. However, they can be expensive to develop and offer no 'scalability' beyond the core purpose - in other words, as your charity grows the system will not grow with you.

Bespoke or off-the-shelf?

With bespoke systems, you get what you ask for and development can be cheaper, but no upgrades, network or support are available because no other charities are using the same system.

Now, however, there is a third alternative: off-the-shelf systems that can provide upgrades and a community, but which are easy to personalise and to add bespoke functions to. Foremost among these is Salesforce, but some of the open-source systems, such as CiviCRM, are beginning to develop into mature products.

Salesforce is a web-based product (so it easily integrates with the internet). It is hosted, managed and upgraded by the company, so there is no need for servers and back-up. It can be developed to manage tasks from HR through to fundraising and events.

The company's charitable foundation also guarantees to donate 10 licences to every charity and will often give more if asked. What the charity pays for is a partner to develop the system to meet its SOR.

One system for everything

The new breed of databases gives charities the opportunity to implement one central system that can manage all their data requirements, however complex their business processes are.

Rather than, for example, buying one database to manage fundraising and another to manage events, as well as hanging on to an old HR system, charities can now have one single data-storage point with one set of records and a single contact history file for all their contacts.

You must plan for the installation phase once you have selected the best system for your needs and have formulated a budget. Be prepared for this to take up staff time and resources; it will require careful management. And don't forget to include training and data transfer stages in your plan.

Six steps to a tender document

  • Identify your core business needs. What do you do that has data and reporting requirements?
  • Map out your processes. How does data come in to the organisation, and what happens to it next?
  • Outline your rules. For example, if X happens, then Y should know and Z should be checked.
  • Draw up you data tables. What input fields do you want?
  • Outline what the system needs to integrate with other systems such as the internet and finance.
  • List how many users you need, and who needs access to what.
Sue Fidler is an independent charity ICT and internet consultant

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