How To Choose A Database?

Choosing a database for your charity is difficult.

Where do you start? What do you need? What should it do? What’s right for you? And how much will it cost?

If you’re a smaller charity, you don’t have dedicated IT people or business analysts to help you.

We’ve spent almost 20 years helping charities like yours, and spoken with thousands in that time. And so we’ve got some ideas about how to make a good decision.

Matt, our founder, shares some tips

1. Why do you need one?

So here you are, looking for a database (or “CRM” or “system” or something similar). Why? Someone, possibly you, thought it’d be a good idea, presumably. If ‘a database’ is the solution, what’s the problem?

You may need to talk to colleagues to answer this fully. And it’s worth going into detail – try and understand exactly what the issues are, and what they are costing you – in time, money, frustration, or missed opportunities.

There are likely a few types of problem that “a database” might help with. Different people will experience these – the more you know now, the better.

This is also a great time to think about how things could be. Don’t worry about how – just try and picture what your organisation might be like, once your dream system is up-and-running.

You can download the e-book here for free, and our accompanying data map template here. We’re not asking for money or email addresses or anything. But if you do find it useful we’d love to know, and if there are ways we could improve it, we’d love to know that too.

2. Who needs to be Involved?

Changing systems inevitably means changes to the way people work. Some people like change; many don’t. So involving people now is going to make things much easier down the line.

Talk to everyone, if possible. What do they do at the moment? What secret spreadsheet do they use that you don’t know about? What could be better? While you’re having these conversations, look for the benefits for them. Also keep an eye out for enthusiasts – people who might want to be more involved, and who can be a champion for the new system later on.

And if you pick up a lot of reluctance at this stage, maybe take a step back from introducing new systems and take some time to understand that more fully, and find a way to bring more positive attitudes to change. Quick wins can help here by making small but significant changes that tangibly help.

3. What data and what do you do with it?

Who do you have, or need data, about? And what broad categories of data about them?

This will be different for different types of people. Data about your service users might be quite different to that for staff or supporters. And what you need to do with it will also vary. Who needs to be able to send bulk emails, and to who? What are your reporting requirements?

Hopefully you’ve already got this well mapped out for your GDPR compliance, but if not you can tick off two things for the price of one here. You may want to take a look at our resources for small charity GDPR compliance to help with this.

At this point you need to try and stay on ‘what’, not ‘how’ answers – the ‘how’ will come later.

4. When does it need to happen?

The last two questions should be quicker and easier to answer, although your answers may need to be provisional for now.

Do you have a deadline from your boss? A year end to coincide with? A new project starting? Anything like this may give you a hoped-for ‘go live’ date. You’ll need to work backwards from there, thinking about staff training, migrating data, the time to set up your system.

We’re often asked how long it takes to get a system in place. Unfortunately, the answer is “Anywhere between a couple of weeks and a couple of years”, which isn’t very helpful.  But for a typical charity with turnover less than £1m, and some dedicated staff time, a typical timescale is between 3 and 6 months from starting work with your supplier to having a fully operational system in use. 

5. How much?

You’re almost ready to start researching and talking to some suppliers to get an idea of costs. The costs you’ll need to consider are:

One-off costs:

  • System implementation costs
  • Cost of staff time for setup
  • Initial staff training costs
  • Data migration costs

On-going costs:

  • On-going licensing / hosting costs
  • On-going support / training costs
  • Your system management costs

You’ll also need to think about your time through this process.  Once you’ve got some sense of the costs from different suppliers, look back at the ‘why’ responses you wrote down at the start of this journey. Does the benefit you expect justify these costs?

What Next?

Download our free e-book and workbook to help you answer these questions in more detail.

Looking for suppliers? The good people at Data Orchard have a useful list of CRM systems and providers for not-for-profits. They are independent of any particular supplier.

More resources

More cool stuff for new charities:

Data Orchard help organisations (charities) get better with data:

NCVO have lots of help and guidance, including about digital issues:

The Lloyds Bank Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation are two funders that provide additional funding to their grant recipients to help them with organisational development, including databases and digital. We’ve worked with Lloyds with dozens of their recipients over the years.

Triangle Consulting have produced dozens of Outcome Stars to help you track the impact you’re having. These are well tested and widely recognised:

Small Charity Week has a range of free or affordable courses on all sorts of topics:

Our friends at Street Smart in Belgium have a range of free training and free resources for youth workers (but useful for others too). They also have an app similar to Lamplight that’s particularly good for outreach based youth work.