Today we have the third installment in Sandy’s three part series on the nonprofit executive’s role with a development database. The first part included Excel isn’t a database and the second part reminded EDs you don’t have to be a geek. You can reach Sandy on Twitter @sandywilder

by Sandy Wilder

In this, my final weigh in on the topic, we’ll address the final two most common responses I hear when talking to executive directors about their role in the database.

“I can’t justify spending all that money on training; what if they quit?”


“We have a board member who is an absolute wiz in Access! She built us a very customized database. We’re just so different than other organizations that we couldn’t ever totally rely on any “off the shelf” program. We only use the database for tracking gifts.”

What if she’s a quitter?

I often hear EDs say they aren’t willing to invest in training because of high employee turnover. That brings to mind the chicken and the egg, but that’s a fish for another fry. One of my favorite responses to this is that you can train your staff and risk they leave, or you can NOT train them and risk that they stay!

Your commitment to asking the questions must be matched by your commitment to giving your staff access to what they need to provide you with answers. Sometimes that’s training; sometimes it means bringing in a consultant to help. Usually, it’s both. Be prepared to give them the tools they need to provide accurate answers to the questions you are asking. Doing so demonstrates very clearly your commitment to them and to the database. Ultimately, don’t you have a fiduciary responsibility to your donors to assure that their investment in the software is being properly maintained and fully utilized?

Don’t reinvent the wheel

If you are fortunate enough to have a board or staff member with what I call a “database head”, congratulations! That person can be an invaluable resource in helping you succeed in your role as a database director, but you should strongly resist the temptation to accept their offer to create a free “custom” database for you. While I have no doubt about their intentions or capabilities, it is highly unlikely that this one person has the fundraising knowledge or technical expertise to match what is on the market from the likes of Blackbaud, Millennium, or Mission Research.

A better use of that person’s considerable time and talent would be to help you harness and effectively direct what you’ve already bought. While all databases are different in terms of specific functionality, they are all databases and have certain characteristics in common. Someone with a true “database head” should be able to help guide your expectations and point you in the right direction with an existing solution. Furthermore, your organization, while unique, faces many of the same challenges as all of the non-profits I’ve worked with worldwide. The products available in the open market are designed with you in mind and only after a considerable investment in market research and guidance from industry experts.

Additional pitfalls of the custom database are training and ongoing maintenance. What happens five years from now when that person is no longer on the board and you’ve been through 3 assistants? You’re much more likely to have a healthy, cutting edge database if you’re using on open market solution. Likewise, the same is true when it comes to hiring new staff who are already knowledgeable in the software. With a custom solution, you’re held hostage.

Don’t even get me started on “We only use the database for gifts”. Do you only use your freezer to make ice? Again, a fish for another fry.

In conclusion, your role as an Executive Director regarding your database is the same as the role you fill in all other aspects of the organization: to direct. As a director, it is incumbent upon you to:

  • assure that you have the right tool in place and that it is being fully utilized (a reasonable database product, not Excel)
  • communicate and keep your staff aware of your needs and expectations from the database (ask the questions)
  • verify that the database is being actively used and maintained (by using it yourself)
  • provide your staff with the necessary tools and information to maximize the database (training and consulting)
  • avoid being held hostage by a free, custom solution offered by a well-meaning stakeholder (re-direct those talents)

Your database can be seen as the face of your organization; it can be a vital part of the image your organization projects. As such, shouldn’t you invest just as much time and effort into maintaining it as you do in choosing and maintaining any other face that represents your organization? Effectively fulfilling your role as director of the database will allow the work you are doing today to continue to contribute to your organization’s mission for years to come. A healthy, well-managed, and well-maintained database is like a perpetual staff member: it never quits, it doesn’t call in sick, it remembers everything you tell it, and it will be there long after we’re gone. Isn’t something that important worthy of your direction?

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